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posted: 2/11/2014 2:46 PM

Doctoring in the early days of Arlington Heights

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A Feb. 10 Daily Herald story described a bionic hand that is not science fiction.

With it, an amputee can tell what he is holding, whether it is a bottle or a baseball or a mandarin orange. According to Associated Press reporter Lauran Neergaard, "to feel what you touch is the holy grail for artificial limbs."

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Danish amputee Dennis Aabo Sorensen found the bionic hand amazing. "It was the closest I have had to feeling like a normal hand." Sorensen lost his left hand in a fireworks accident 10 years ago.

It wasn't fireworks usually that caused the accidents that led to amputations in Arlington in the early 20th century. There were a lot caused by railroad accidents. And many more caused by farm machinery.

One year, local farmers invested in "new and improved corn shredders." The first summer they were used, what they basically shredded was fingers. As a result, Dr. John Best amputated 18 mangled arms and hands. Probably many of them on the farmers' kitchen tables. That's where most surgeries were done in early days.

Born in a Woodstock log cabin, Dr. Best served in the 95th Illinois Infantry during the Civil War and graduated from Rush Medical College in 1870. He came to Arlington Heights because he believed that its wonderful farmland presaged a good future for the town. He certainly helped the town achieve its future by delivering 1,552 babies over his career. None of them in hospitals.

The trick, then, was keeping the children he had delivered alive. Diphtheria was the scourge of the age. Some families lost from two to six children in a week. Dr. Best devised gold tubes to put down a child's throat to clear a passageway so the patient did not suffocate. Dr. Best learned to insert the devices by practicing on cadavers in the county morgue for six weeks.

He shared the town's medical coverage with the equally beloved Dr. A.E. Elfeld, who began his practice in town in 1902. Henry Leark, one of my most colorful interviewees, described Dr. Elfeld as "a big, tall fellow, a nice fellow. He looked like Abraham Lincoln. He was all doctor, you know what I mean.

"He liked to go to the show. If there was an emergency, they'd say it right out loud in the theater. And away he'd go. If you had money to pay, that was all right. If you had no money, that was all right, too." (Payment was often in chickens.)

Marjorie Annen Carter called Dr. Elfeld a kind person, no matter what. "If he had been paid (in money) for all the babies he delivered (the estimate was 5,000) he would be a rich man."

As a child, Marjorie was afflicted by sties. "When I'd wake, I couldn't get my eyes open. My mother would bathe them with boric acid solution, hand me 50 cents, and my sister would walk me to Dr. Elfeld's office before school. "He'd lance my sties, and I'd unclutch the 50 cents. Nine out of 10 times, he would hand it back to me, and say kindly, 'It hurt me more than it hurt you.'"

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