George Sorrells was a mischievous 2-year-old when, way back in 1939, he crawled into a place he shouldn’t have — a fireplace in an old school building. His parents were both school teachers in Shoals and had brought him along, but he’d slipped out of their sight.
Third-degree burns covered the toddler’s legs when he was doused with water and pulled from the fireplace by an Amish woman named Mary. She then helped nurse young George back to good health, staying by his side for six months.
“I’m alive today because of the quick action of a young lady of the Amish faith,” Sorrells said, recounting the incident. “That was my introduction to the Amish.”
Sorrells, now 79 and a pediatrician, has never forgotten the kindness Mary showed him. He’s spent nearly his entire professional life repaying the debt he feels he owes her, the faded scars on his legs a constant reminder.
Ever since Sorrells arrived in Bedford in the mid-1960s, he’s been the doctor the local Amish and Mennonite communities know they can turn to at a moment’s notice.
“Since that time, I have been fortunate enough to care for many men and women throughout southern Indiana and including — I want that in big, bold letters — including those of the Amish and Mennonite faith,” Sorrells said during a recent interview in his Riley Physicians at Indiana University Health pediatrics office in Bedford. Many of the Amish and Mennonite communities he serves are in Cannelburg, Loogootee, Washington, Odon and surrounding areas.
Sorrells, a bolo-tie-wearing clean-cut man with a flat-top hairstyle that goes from gray to white as it works its way to his ears, is a member of the old guard. The kind of doctor that hands out his cellphone number so he can schedule early morning appointments in the middle of the night. He’s told so many patients to use his home landline number that his wife, Barbara, has asked to set some quiet hours in the morning.
To oblige her, he wakes up at 5 a.m., makes a pot of coffee (leaving half for Barbara, which she gets to a little after 7), quickly eats a bowl of cereal and is at the office by 6:30 a.m., ready for patients.
“Many of the Amish and Mennonite work hard. They don’t work easy hours like the rest of us. So they would call home at five o’clock in the morning wondering if they could be seen. Fine with me,” Sorrells said. “My office staff has trouble, because they never know who’s going to come in in the morning, because I talk to people at night, tell them I’ll see them.”
Sorrells works hard, too. He told his wife he would retire at 70, then maybe at 75. He’ll turn 80 in November and has already informed Barbara he’d like to keep practicing medicine as long as his mind lets him. Still whip smart and able to recall many of his patients’ medical and familial history off the top of his head, he may have to tell Barbara to look more toward 85 or 90.
“The Amish knew that they could call me. They knew that I would be glad to see them if at all possible. I’ve stressed availability with the Amish,” Sorrells said. “One of the honors of being a physician is having the trust and confidence of people. People trust their physician if they’re honest or straightforward with them.”
He’s gained that trust, in his opinion, because of the four A’s: availability, affordability, affability and “a touch of ability.” In truth, he’s the kind of man you want to see just as much in the good times as the bad. When he smiles, his cheeks raise the frames on his glasses, and when he tells a story, he leans in so he can really tell it. He even gets embarrassed when he mentions in passing the surprise 75th birthday party an Amish community planned for him with Barbara’s help. And he expresses sincere gratitude when he speaks of the wakes he’s been invited to attend.
“People have just been so gracious and good to me,” he said.
As far as treatment goes, he treats Amish and Mennonite patients just as he would anyone else: no unnecessary procedures and with all the benefits that advancements in modern medicine allow.
“Remember, they’re human beings like the rest of us,” Sorrells said. “I’ve never had one say a thing against medical X-ray. Never. In other words, needed procedures, I’ve never had them complain at all.”
Sorrells said while broken bones and other farm injuries are more common among the Amish than the general population, there are advantageous differences he’s noticed — or hasn’t noticed. He can’t remember seeing a teenager with acne, he said, and ADHD among Amish children is “almost unknown.”
After all these years and generations of families that have walked through his doors, Sorrells has very few regrets.
“My biggest regret is the years go by,” he said. “I had my 55th class reunion this past weekend, and a lot of my classmates have had to hang it up already. There’s a few of us still going, and what a thrill it is. I just wish I had a lot more years.”