For more than 50 years, patients have climbed the porch steps up to the white clapboard house in downtown Franklin to see their family doctor.
Dr. Merrill Wesemann has treated colicky babies and set broken arms in overactive children. He’s answered expectant mothers’ questions about their first pregnancy, diagnosed heart disease and other chronic illnesses and helped older patients deal with ongoing pain.
Recently, Wesemann and his staff have been dealing with crying patients as much as with illnesses and injuries. Wesemann will retire at the end of the month.
“That’s the hardest thing right now. It’s harder to give up the patients than to give up the practice,” he said.
Wesemann has been practicing family medicine from his cozy office in downtown Franklin since 1963. During his career, he’s seen the drastic changes in the way people are treated — the end of house calls, the rise of specialized doctors and advances in treating traditionally deadly diseases.
But Wesemann has remained steadfast in his commitment to his patients, maintaining the small-town feel that attracted him to medicine in the first place.
“It’s most satisfying now to think that I was able to help a few people,” Wesemann said. “It’s been a good, wholesome practice, and I hope I’ve helped a lot of people.”
Margaret DeBell started seeing Wesemann in 1964, just after he opened his practice in Franklin.
Over the years, the Edinburgh resident was impressed by his accessibility. Any question that she had, he was available to listen patiently and then help her find a solution to a particular pain.
“If I have something going, I know I can call him. If he can’t help, he sends me to a specialist who can,” she said.
Wesemann cared for her when she was pregnant with her two children and delivered each one himself.
Decades of care
Graduated with bachelor’s degree from Franklin College in 1957; graduated from Indiana University School of Medicine in 1961
Life member of the American Academy of Family Physicians; former member of the Johnson Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees
“He was so kind,” DeBell said. “I sure hate to see him retire.”
Wesemann grew up in Bloomington before moving to French Lick. His family lived on a farm, and he became familiar with hard work with long days doing chores in the fields and in the barn.
As a child, he saw firsthand what medicine was capable of. He was diagnosed with hepatitis when he was 6 and ended up in the hospital. Six years later, he suffered from typhoid fever.
Wesemann’s parents were in the medical field and instilled their duty of curing disease in their son. His father was a doctor, and his mother was a nurse.
“I’ve been interested in going into medicine as long as I can remember,” he said. “With the medical books around the house, and with the conversations, I never thought I’d do anything different.”
‘Same building all this time’
After he graduated from high school in 1953, he enrolled at Franklin College to work on a premedical degree. Those four years laid the foundation for what would be a lifetime residency in Franklin.
Wesemann worked as an orderly at Johnson Memorial Hospital during his undergraduate days and made connections with the doctors in town.
He attended medical school at Indiana University in Bloomington, graduating in 1961. He founded his practice in 1962, starting in Edinburgh before buying the office in Franklin.
“I’ve been in the same building all this time. The same location. Some of my patients have been here since the start, and some even were with Dr. Jones before I came,” he said.
At the start of his medical career, Wesemann needed to be versatile to meet the needs of his patients.
He would visit Johnson Memorial Hospital to care for those who had had been admitted with heart attacks or strokes. Often, he would care for women during their pregnancies and deliver their children when they were born.
One woman went into labor when she was at Wesemann’s office, forcing him to deliver the child in an examination room.
“It wasn’t by choice. When they decide to come, they come,” he said.
As more and more doctors started specializing, Wesemann stopped offering certain treatments. He ceased his obstetrics services first, then pediatrics.
‘Open to whatever works’
Up until the past decade, he made house calls, which were one of his favorite aspects of the profession.
Visiting a sick patient at home allowed Wesemann to better know them, their habits and the ways they lived. That helped him devise the best personalized treatment plan.
“It’s amazing what you learn from being at a patient’s house. You see how they live,” he said.
While he stopped certain practices, Wesemann picked up other methods of helping his patients.
In the mid-1980s, he spoke with a patient who had used acupuncture to treat his back and shoulder pain. The alternative medicine had worked for him and asked Wesemann if he knew anything about acupuncture.
“I didn’t know anything; but there was a meeting in Louisville that weekend on it, so I went to it,” he said. “I became interested and took several courses in acupuncture.”
Wesemann has tried to be open to any method of treating pain and illnesses, either in the traditional way or alternatively.
Mark Rainey has been seeing Wesemann for the past few years. Though he initially came to him because he was his mother’s doctor, Rainey was impressed by his grasp of alternative treatments for disease.
The Franklin resident suffers from spondylolisthesis, a displacement of the vertebrae. When he showed Wesemann the posture exercises he was completing to improve the condition, the doctor wanted to know more about it.
“He’s really open to whatever works. He wanted to know who was doing it and if it would be a good place for him to make referrals for his other patients,” Rainey said. “But he’s also a very straightforward conventional medical doctor. He’s focused on the person.”
‘Patients are your family’
Wesemann sees 10 to 12 patients each day, cutting down from his normal 20. He works four days a week, coming in just for the mornings to treat people.
Up until his retirement on Aug. 29, he’ll continue seeing patients. He and his staff have been working with them over the past two months to help them find new doctors.
Linda Ping has worked for Wesemann for 32 years. She started as his nurse and moved up to take over as office manager.
The closing of the practice severs a connection that they shared with Wesemann’s patients.
Some have been coming to the doctor for 52 years. In come cases, Wesemann has treated three generations of family members at his office.
Ping and nurse Kathy Kienenger, a 16-year employee at the practice, have been tirelessly pulling files and delivering them to the new offices.
“These patients are your family. You see a few weeks in a row or a few months in a row,” Ping said. “So it’s been hard. I keep tissues around because everyone keeps coming in to cry.”
Wesemann’s decision to retire was difficult, but one he felt was necessary. At 79, he isn’t as mobile as he had been. Changes in medical insurance and the ways that patients pay for their treatments had become too much to keep up with.
“It’s difficult to change after all of these years,” he said. “Through the years, I’ve been doing the whole spectrum of family practice and general practice. Frankly, you don’t see that much anymore.”