The sign outside Dr. Emory Lewis’s office is as big as the broad side of a barn.
Actually, it is the broad side of a barn. A hay barn.
“Dr. Lewis,” it says in enormous letters visible to anyone driving down Route 360 near the fishing village of Reedville, at the watery end of Virginia’s Northern Neck.
There’s also the giant fish. It’s a fake rockfish, big as a killer whale, perched by the side of the road at the head of the long driveway. The fish is part advertisement, part running gag. The doctor uses the fish to create visual word plays to amuse passing motorists. One day recently, a small chair dangled above the fish. Rock . . . and chair. Rocking chair!
One senses, driving along, that there’s a character lurking, some Americana demanding scrutiny. It is so: This is the realm of a certain Wallace Emory Lewis Jr. — country doctor, nostalgia buff, yachtsman, crabber, entrepreneur, raconteur and slightly loony pillar of a Tidewater community.
He’s a big talker.
“Everything I know is a story, so bear with me,” he says as, eating fast food in his personal lighthouse on the water (yes, he has a personal lighthouse), he retells a complicated yarn about why he recently bought an 80-foot boat from a neurosurgeon whose girlfriend was hydrophobic. (“I know you’re going to kill me, but . . .” Lewis said to his wife, Janet, when he informed her that he’d already signed the contract.)
You might say the doctor is living in the past simply by being here in Reedville, which is about as sleepy as modern America can get. It’s serene and pleasant, but it’s literally a dead-end town, an hour and a half from the nearest interstate highway, and eight decades removed from the last steamer service to Baltimore.
Lewis is one of five doctors, by his count, in Northumberland County. He doesn’t embody the trends in medicine so much as he defies them. He’s a doctor who still makes house calls. His patients are mostly Medicare-eligible, and they supplement the doctor’s reimbursements with gifts of home-canned relish and menhaden roe.
Lewis has no interest in assembly-line medicine. “A lot of times that’s therapeutic, just to talk to people,” he says. He knows his patients and their parents and their parents’ parents, and remembers which families have a history of diabetes.
He wound up in the barn after a dispute a couple of years ago with the health-care company that employed him. He relocated his practice and entire staff to the farmhouse, built in 1816 near the head of Cockrell’s Creek.
The bedrooms have been converted to examining rooms. The floorboards are as creaky as some of the patients.
The farmhouse doesn’t have an X-ray machine, which he thinks is a good thing, because that cuts down on needless tests.
“Give it a week, and it’ll feel better,” he will tell a patient.
The doctor’s assistants, all of them women, have stuck with him for decades. Two have been with him for 34 years. “It’s a family here, not just nurses and doctors,” says one of those two, office manager Janet Crowther, who used to clean crabs for Lewis back when he ran a crab house on the side. When not helping patients, the staffers make asparagus soup or spaghetti sauce in the farmhouse kitchen, for group lunches, and they tend a small garden near the barn. “The girls,” he calls them.
Lewis is a throwback character in a throwback place. The population of Northumberland County in the 2010 census was 12,330, not much more than the 10,777 of 1910 or the 9,163 in the very first census of 1790. Reedville remains the seat of the menhaden industry (“Menhaden regulators meet” was the big headline the other day in the Northumberland Echo).
Reedville once boasted that it was the richest town per capita in the country. You can see the old wealth in the form of the splendid Victorian homes along Main Street. But downtown has emptied out. Long gone is the movie theater, the hat store, the dress store, the grocery store, the barbershop, the dentist.
The menhaden fleet is a ghost of its former self, and there’s only one fish-protein processing plant left, Omega Protein, in town. Watermen are a vanishing breed, and most young people don’t stay here after they graduate from school. Northumberland is one of the oldest counties in Virginia, with a median age of 50. The old high school in Reedville is now a residential building for retirees. The first thing you see when you reach town, after the “Welcome to Reedville” sign, is the cemetery.
Lewis is a native, though not technically a Reedvillian. He was born and raised in Fleeton, the hamlet next door. His father was a captain on a menhaden boat, and Lewis spent many of his younger days out on the water. He returned here after a stint in the Navy — he’s a Vietnam veteran — and medical school in Richmond. His favorite part of being a doctor is the minor surgery, working with his hands as he did on his father’s boat. “I love to do cutting and sewing and things like that,” he says.
Lewis lives on a point of land just five minutes by foot from where he was born in 1944. The upstairs part of the house is largely his wife’s domain. Then you go to the basement — to Emory’s man cave.
It’s a warren of rooms crammed with flashing, beeping, squawking pinball machines. Also slot machines. Pachinko machine. Foosball table. Jukebox. Pool table. Vintage 1950s posters.
The doctor has pinned medical X-rays to light boards, including one in which you can see a tiny drill perched in his wife’s stomach after she accidentally swallowed it at the dentist’s.
There’s an M&M dispenser, pirate costumes, jigsaw puzzles, a hunting boat, a small motorized airplane suspended from the ceiling, and — in another room — a museum with historic photos. Through yet another entry is an ice cream parlor.
Did he not have enough toys as a kid?
“I was spoiled rotten,” he answers. “My father was wealthy for this area. I had boats, guns. You’d think I’d go the other way. But I like things.”
The basement is not his only man cave. He’s also got that lighthouse.
It’s out on the water, reached by a narrow wooden walkway. The doctor — who clearly has some kind of Willy Wonka thing going — built the lighthouse to be a ticket office for boat tours in one of his not-quite-successful entrepreneurial ventures. It has the requisite jukebox, computer, refrigerator. He serves a visiting reporter a lunch of fried chicken and cheeseburgers at a small table. Great views — menhaden boats coming in. The doctor points out the ones that had a good day by judging the way they float in the water.
Lunch over, Lewis jumps behind the wheel of his Hummer (license plate Sayahhh) and tours his domain. He pulls into a driveway a short ride from his house and points out the place where he was born 68 years ago. A few strides away he owns a work shed overflowing with tools, nuts, bolts, fishing rods — stuff. Next to that is a kitchen where he and his buddies cook fish once a month. Another man cave!
“It’s camaraderie. It’s a guy thing,” he says.
Next to that is the crab house he ran for decades before finally selling it. He still walks in like he owns the place. He plucks a soft-shell crab from a water basin. He strokes it: “See how soft it is?”
He points to another crab:
“See how that shell is cracking? We call that a buster. He’s busting out of his shell. I’ve probably seen a million crabs come out of the shell, but it’s always fascinating, it’s like watching a baby being born.”
Onward to an old marina where, floating at the dock, is Hiawatha, the boat his parents used to take on recreational trips to Florida. He keeps it for sentimental value.
Then he drives to the heart of the port, to a marina where he keeps the 80-foot yacht he bought impulsively in the fall. It’s called the Capt. Wallace Lewis, after his father. The interior is lined with teak wood. Down a hatch is another workshop where the doctor can fiddle with stuff.
On to the farmhouse. And the giant fish.
Last year, he built a frying pan under the fish, advertised a fish fry (75 people showed up — he fed them hot dogs), then gradually eviscerated it, posing plastic vultures on top as if they’d pecked the carcass. Then he staged a fish burial. Then the fish rose from the grave as an angel fish. He bought a helium-balloon fish.
Why does he do all this?
“Fun! I like to have fun!” he says.
Does anyone ever say . . .
“. . . that I’m crazy? Oh yeah. It’s mentioned a lot of times.”
Prodded, he’ll talk politics. He doesn’t like President Obama’s health-care initiatives and worries about socialized medicine and health-care rationing.
“I would be perfectly happy if the government would stay out of most things except maybe defense and highways,” he says. “The United States is built on the free enterprise system, and we’re getting more socialized all the time.”
He’s had a few bumps in his career. He’s had two malpractice suits; he lost one and settled the other, he says. Records show that in 1988 he was reprimanded by the Virginia medical board for a 1984 case involving an assistant (no longer with him) who improperly gave prescription drug samples to a patient. For about a year, he had to keep special records of his prescriptions.
He used to deliver babies, but there wasn’t enough business anymore to make it worth purchasing the obstetric malpractice insurance, he says. And then two years ago he relocated his practice, which cut his income in half.
Still, he doesn’t have money worries. He’s focused on the trip he’s organizing for his buddies out to Tangier Island. Guys only.
What we have here, ultimately, is a man who created for himself a dynamic and successful life in a place where nothing much happens. He will mention, if you ask him, that medicine isn’t what it used to be. He talks about patients who want a pill for every ache and pain. But in general he doesn’t grouse about the world. He wants to have fun.
“It takes more energy to be negative than to be positive,” he says. “It just looks to me like the ones who fuss and complain the most, they’ll always have something bad happen to them.”
Back at the house, his wife pulls up in a car after going to her book club.
“You get the whole story?” she asks, and flashes a jaundiced smile — knowing that the country doctor will always have another story he wants to tell.