Livin’ in an Amish Paradise

Amish country near Arthur, Illinois“We been spending’ most our lives living in an Amish paradise…” Weird Al

It’s getting close to lunch time at my clinic, but I have no hope of wrapping things up for a break any time soon. Why not? The waiting room looks like a call back for extras for Witness. Women in sturdy blue polyester dresses and enormous black bonnets, de rigueur for every Amish lady, are shushing children in blue shirts and black overalls, their bowl haircuts shrouded with enormous black hats. Men with springy gray beards sit silently nearby, dressed in their identical Amish uniforms. Probably only one of this cast of thousands is actually scheduled for an appointment. Yet in the course of the visit, I’ll start with one and end up seeing three or four, as they think I might as well see the daughter with a “little” cold (pneumonia), the diabetic grandma (blood sugar over 400), and their cousin’s farrier, who happened to come along for the ride. And could I please hurry it up, because the neighbor who gave them all a ride has to get back in time for dinner. Yes, just another day of Amish Hell at the office, and I’m smack in the middle of it.

The Amish are a sturdy sect of traditionalists who live simply and eschew modern technology. Originally members of a church schism in Switzerland, the Amish community left to settle in the Pennsylvania area, and eventually migrated to other parts of the US, including Michigan and Indiana. The Amish community is truly off the grid, living free of silly government entanglements such as Social Security numbers, government IDs, and therefore, health insurance. So just about any day might be Amish Day at the free clinic. The Amish folk are for the most part lovely, delightful people who would do anything to help a friend or neighbor. So why do I feel like I’m in the seventh circle of hell whenever their group darkens my door?

They come in large swarms, with no concept of anyone’s time, except their own. They want everything done at once, because they came all the way to town, darn it, and they’re busy people with things to do. The women wear two-piece dresses held together

Amish clothing hanging in the bedroom at The A...

by straight pins, and more undergarments than Scarlet O’Hara. Nothing strikes fear in my heart more than to think that I might have to ask one of them to get undressed – a 20 minute ordeal at least on each side of the operation which will tie up one of my two exam rooms for the next 40 minutes. Every Amish patient expects me to solve their problem, without their giving me any information about it. “So how has your blood sugar been, Rachel,” I ask, already knowing the answer. “Oh, I can’t really say. It’s high.” Then we begin the game we play every time, which I always lose. “Is it higher than 200?” I’ll ask, hoping this time I might get an answer. “Oh it’s high. I can’t really say.” “Can’t really say” is the Amish polite way of saying “you are an English woman, an outsider and I’m not giving you any information no matter how many different ways you ask.” And so I jump in, treating a pain they won’t describe, or a cough that has been present for God knows how long, listening to lung sounds through industrial polyester,  and expected to do it in record time because, really, don’t I know they still need to get to the store and be home in time for milking?

Later, if we have to call them about test results or an appointment, a new kind of hell begins. Their emergency contact person is listed only as “Bruce,” a non-Amish neighbor who has a phone, and has somehow become trusted enough to take their messages. I always hope that we never have to contact them for anything urgent, because Bruce might be busy with the plowing and not get them the message right away. Plus, he’s handling messages for every Amish family up and down the road, and with each family boasting 8 to 18 children, that’s a lot of Amish. There’s never any point in calling them to reschedule an appointment, because they’ll just show up anyway. After all, they went to all the trouble of getting a ride, and they’re not going to redo it just for my convenience.

Yet, in many ways they are endearing. They represent an earlier time, when neighbor trusted neighbor, when it was possible to be happy and connected to one’s community without having a phone permanently attached to one’s palm. Despite my frustration, I love most all of my Amish patients. They remind me of goodness, community, and simpler times.

© Huffygirl 2013

31 thoughts on “Livin’ in an Amish Paradise

  1. Very nice. I had no idea you had so many Amish patients. I think the “Amish Cook” who has a column in our newspaper (and many others) lives somewhere in that vague area.

  2. Having just returned from Ohio, where there are lots of Amish, I love this post– we cycled by many farms and people in carriages pulled by horses. There does seem something very wholesome about them– even if they’re blood sugar is high. Great post, Donna, thanks.

    • Thanks Lisa. We’ve done some cycling in Amish country in Indiana, and are always impressed with the beautiful gardens and yards the people there have. Now that I’ve been there almost 3 years, some of them are actually starting to trust me and start taking my prescriptions a year or two after I’ve given them to them.

  3. I’ve always been interested in finding out more about how the Amish live. It’s hilarious really how medical treatments in mainstream American society can clash with Amish ways! Thanks so much for this post. It was a really good read.

  4. Your challenges notwithstanding, you do give a really fascinating glimpse into their life, especially from the “English” perspective. It’s interesting to see the cultural clash. I think the challenges you experience are probably similar to what many majority group members face when dealing with minority groups who are living amongst the majority but not fully assimilated. Carlos faces this with many of the Latino population (calling expecting to speak with an attorney at all hours of the night) and I do with some the Deaf community in the video relay interpreting world (not understanding the typical etiquette of how to leave a voice mail message–not starting in a timely manner after the beep, failing to leave pertinent info, rambling too long and getting cut off). Carlos & I have often discussed also the weird interdependence between the groups–yes, the minority groups need us to function in our society, though if not living in our society they’d get on just fine by themselves. Likewise, we kind of need them for our livelihood! If not for those groups, there would be no need for Spanish-speaking attorneys, ASL interpreters, or free clinics, and we’d be out of work! I love sociology… 🙂

    • So thoughtful and well-put Judy. You have really hit the nail on the head, and because of your own similar experiences with other closed communities, you know exactly how I feel. Some people might say “Why do you put up with their nonsense? Expect them to follow the rules like everyone else or don’t allow them to come.” But of course, if cultural differences were that easy to change, there would only be one culture, and our society would lack the richness and diversity we currently enjoy. Or in other words, would be a lot like the 1940’s.

      Today, on the other extreme, I had a patient from Yemen. Now, I just need someone from Zimbabwe, and I can say I’ve had patients of all cultures from A to Z.

  5. My sister lived next to Amish for years and when my boy was about twelve he would go over and help them with their work. They were always friendly I thought until one day we got a letter from them telling me they didn’t want Jared over anymore because he was asking them to many questions about their religion. I still think they are hard working but I never understood how they could hurt my boy like that.

    • Lexiesnana, I wouldn’t take your “Amish rebuff” too much to heart. Unlike what the TV might portray, there are many different “orders” of Amish. Some are truly “hardcore” – no appliances, no electric light, very harsh discipline, very little tolerance of outsiders. Others are very “loose” and will talk to you about pretty much anything, as long as you’re respectful. I had the great fortune to meet the wife of one of the ultra (and I mean ULTRA) orthodox Amish families around here, and be invited into her home. Most folk would’ve been creeped out – dim oil-lamp lighting, creaky wood furniture, everything dark and quiet and VERY oppressive. (I’m an old-stuff nut, so I was in 7th heaven, but then again, I’m not normal – just ask our hostess! 😉 ) To some of the Amish, just having a young boy asking elders questions without an almost-military style of “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir” could earn you the rebuke – no fault of yours, just a simple clash of cultures. The Amish are really an interesting … I can’t really call them an entity, as there are almost as many “flavours” of Amish as there are Amish folk …. but they’re definitely worth the effort to get to know, especially if you like “old technology” like I do.
      If you’re ever in Ohio, swing through Sugarcreek and Millersburg, about 90 minutes east-northeast of Columbus. That’s the heart of “tourist Amish” country around here, where you can get some great food, marvelous cheese, and learn a bit about their culture. If you (or anyone reading this) can contact me a few days in advance, I’ll happily offer my services as a tour guide!
      Hope this gives you a little insight into these folk. Heck, I’d go Amish myself, but I like my TV and PC just a WEE bit too much – and I like my weekends free! 😀

      • Thanks for your insight John. And as far as your not being normal, well, that’s what makes you special 🙂

        Interestingly, today I had a new Amish patient from a different area than most of my patients come from, and he had a cell phone. First time I had seen that, and it sure makes it easier if you have to call them, instead of just leaving a message with “Bruce.”

        As far as not wanting to give up your TV and PC to become Amish, I believe if you can find a way to run them on compressed air and/or a car battery, you’d be good to go.

      • Well, I suppose there IS going Mennonite (Amish Lite), they’re pretty easy on what tech you can use – you can even own a car. But it has to be black. (Huh? Don’t ask.) And most of ’em drive Fords. (EEEEEE-YUKKKKK!!!!)
        On second thought, I’ll just remain the strange old vet who limps through town. Most of the townfolk think I’m the Vietnam poster child for PTSD. I don’t let the fact I’d have been a whopping 12 when Saigon fell dissuade their misconceptions, it’s too much fun to watch ’em point and whisper as I walk along, talking to myself. 😀

  6. Alright, where the heck you at? ‘Cause I got Amish comin’ out the wazoo (literally – my wife used to drive them around for a living), and your Amish aren’t my Amish!
    Our gang has no problem with cell phones – “only for the business, of course”. Yeah – that’s why you sleep with the dang things. Want a real laugh? Pass an Amish buggy at night, and look for the telltale blue glow from the back. Kids are bangin’ away on Gameboys and such! And my all time favourite? Electric appliances, working off car batteries, which are charged from a drop line out by the road. Why? “Because we’re not attached to the grid”. But … but … you charge your batteries FROM the grid, then use that power for your appliances, so they ARE running off the grid! “No, we’re running off batteries.” Bloody rules lawyers! 😀

    • Yes, they are very quick to rationalize using modern conveniences to get the things done that they need. The car batteries are a big thing among my Amish – if they need any medical equipment they rig it up to run on a car battery. Mine don’t seem to have cell phones, or if they do, they’re not telling me about it. Sure would make it easier to reach them. Maybe I’m better off with my Amish though – at least I know what to expect with them. Glad to see you’re back John.

  7. That is a great post, dead on about the Amish. I lived in Pennsylvania for a while, right in the middle of Amish country. You often saw their buggies going up and down the road, and it was Amish hell getting stuck behind them in a car going up a steep hill. These Amish didn’t seem to use any tech gadgets and had a yellow sign warning people this was an Amish transportation buggy complete with horse on the back of their buggy.

    As you say, they are polite, friendly (in an aloof way), and helpful to the extreme. The funniest thing I saw was an Amish man, his shirt sleeves rolled up, working under a motorist’s car, trying to fix it. I kept thinking…they don’t use cars…how would they know how to fix it? Apparently he did, as the lady in distress left about half an hour later, not in distress anymore. While the man of the family worked on the vehicle, the wife and four children sat quietly and somewhat primly in the buggy with great patience and fortitude. However, by the thin line of the wife’s pressed-down lips, I suspected she did not approve of Jacob’s foray into technology and car-fixing.

    Very nice writing by the way, HG. I agree with the reader who suggested you try to market it…not The Amish Times, silly…try a non-Amish Pennsylvania magazine. I think people would love reading about their neighbors the way you describe it. Humorous and respectful. Loved it.

    • Thanks Sandra. I can always count on you to say something interesting and positive that brings me a smile. I’ve had a little bit rough last couple months, so this was just perfect.

      I love your Amish anecdote – I really do think that most Amish would go out of their way to be helpful to anyone they meet. Sometimes in the clinic they come across as demanding, but I think it has more to do with old-fashioned efficiency and practicality. In many ways they remind me of my parent’s philosophy when we were growing up. As long as we’re going “into town” let’s conduct all the business we need, in the interest of efficiency.

      • Thanks Sandra, how sweet of you. Compared to all the recent tragedies like the Boston bombing, explosion in West, Texas and Oklahoma tornado, nothing seems that bad. I just had a couple injuries – hurt my knee, broke my shoulder, and ended up having to cancel a trip we had planned to Hawaii. It all had me a bit down, but it’s getting better. And all these recent tragedies put things in perspective.

  8. I wonder, are there any actual Amish doctors? I’m guessing there aren’t, if they can’t use any lab equipment or even a bright light, since it all runs on electricity.

    • Good question X. I am not sure, but I’m guessing there are no Amish doctors, mainly based on the level of education that I see among the Amish I’ve met. Most grow up with about an 8th grade education. Those who work outside of farming seem to work in construction or manufacturing trades, or for the women, in bakeries or restaurants. That’s not to say it couldn’t happen though. The Amish folks I’ve met are big believers of herbal medicine, and I think there are herbalists among their group who promote taking this or that herb for whatever. Your question makes me want to delve into this more.

      • The Amish around here will go to “English” (non-Amish) doctors, but it usually has to be something pretty severe. Plus, there’s only a few doctors they trust – they won’t go to just anybody. The people we stayed with (when we first moved down here), the wife was a DO. She would do “rounds” through the Amish community – I went with her as “muscle” (there’s a laugh!) to help with a late-teens guy who was kicked in the face by a horse. Busted heck out of his cheekbone, but just, JUST barely missed blinding him. (He ended up going in an ambulance to the nearest hospital. But for colds, backaches, “garden-variety” stuff we might run to a doc for, they will use a wide variety of herbal concoctions. I use one, called “Night Nervine”, as a sleep aid to reduce the amount of Valium I have to take. It’s a witches’ brew of St. John’s Wort, Valerian Root, and about half a dozen other things that should only be found on a wizard’s potion shelves. But it works!
        BTW, they do have an all-Amish, except for one pediatrician, Amish clinic. They do use “common” medical stuff (stethoscopes, lights, I think they even have an ultra-sound to view the fetuses), but no fancy MRIs or expensive stuff. But not all Amish around here will tolerate even that. It’s a wild hodge-podge of various levels of “orthodoxy” – and we have some hardliners who won’t go to a non-Amish medic even if they’re dying.
        Hope that helps!

      • Very interesting John. Thanks for the first-hand insight. I think maybe my Amish patients are starting to trust me more – some of them are starting to take my advice after only 1-2 years of seeing me!

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