In 1948 my parents immigrated to Canada from war-ravaged Hungary. Grateful to have been accepted into the country, they embraced all things Canadian. The only exception was their Hungarian doctors, two surgeons regarded as gods in the Hungarian immigrant community.
One day, my mother felt unusually fatigued and complained of “female discomfort.” She was examined with great care by one of the surgeons. After a series of tests that took the better part of the day, he gravely informed her that she had a cyst on one of her ovaries. Though it was not serious, the doctor explained, she would have to come in for surgery the following week, as such cases, if left untreated, could become life-threatening. The surgery was scheduled, and my parents went home grateful for the personal attention they had received and the speed with which the diagnosis had been reached. They discussed buying the doctor a small gift: perhaps a watch, or a gold chain.
As the day of the surgery drew near, however, my mother fretted, and my father began to have second thoughts. Was this operation really necessary? After all, this was North America, where they manufactured pills for absolutely everything. Perhaps my mother’s condition could be treated by one of the thousands of new drugs on the market.
Hoping to avoid surgery, my parents went to a young Canadian gynecologist, who patiently listened to their story, then performed his own examination. After ten minutes he sat them down and declared that neither surgery nor drug therapy would help my mother’s condition.
Seven months later, I was born.
J. H. Korda
Having put off a dental check-up for as long as I could, I finally made an appointment. The dentist’s dire assessment of the state of my mouth convinced me to see an orthodontist.
After examining me, taking photographs of both the inside and the outside of my mouth, and molding a life-size model of my teeth in plaster, the doctor outlined his extensive recommendations for orthodonture coupled with oral surgery. He described procedures I had not even dreamed possible.
“You can do that?” I asked, incredulous.
Taken aback, he looked me directly in the eye and said, “We can do anything.”
Mei Mei Evans
In my new job as a medical social worker at a small hospital, I quickly learned from the nurses which doctors would treat you like a human being and which would dismiss you as a lowly servant.
One of my responsibilities was to respond to the “blue alert” calls, which signaled that a patient’s heart had stopped and the situation was critical. My duty was to provide whatever comfort and information I could to the patient’s family.
After perhaps two months, I responded to my first blue alert: a fifty-four-year old man was brought in by ambulance, having suffered a heart attack. Talking with his wife, I found out she worked as a receptionist for a doctor about whom I had heard horror stories from the nurses. This same doctor was now attending the woman’s husband. In a particularly detached and cold manner, he told the family that the situation was very serious, that they might have to airlift the man to a hospital in Omaha — if he made it that far.
The doctor left, and I helped the patient’s wife make some phone calls, ushered in relatives, and fetched coffee and water, all the while thinking, He has known this woman for years, and that’s all the comfort he can offer?
All too soon, the doctor returned with a nurse. They motioned for me to leave, and I stepped into the hall, where I found out from another nurse that the man had died.
Afterward, I was heading back to my office when I saw the doctor walking toward me down the corridor. He didn’t look well. Serves him right, I thought scornfully. But then, rebuking myself for my mean-spiritedness, I reached out and touched his arm. “Are you OK?” I asked gently.
Suddenly this man — this doctor — crumpled in my arms like a baby and sobbed into my shoulder, right there in the middle of the hallway. Nurses, patients, and other doctors passed us, but no one stopped or said a word. “You did everything you could,” I whispered over and over again as I held him. And then, just as suddenly as he had collapsed, he pulled away from me, wiped his tears, and was quickly off down the hall.
Working as a labor-and-delivery nurse in many different hospitals, I met a great number of doctors. Some were truly good-hearted, skilled, and compassionate physicians — I’d say about 10 percent. The rest were “old boy” doctors who squeezed as many women as possible into their practices and treated birth as a “problem” that must be “solved.”
By far the most fearsome doctors I ever encountered were a pair of obstetricians who dominated the delivery ward of a hospital in the center of a poor neighborhood, delivering hundreds of babies to mostly young, uneducated black and Hispanic women. Often one of these doctors — I’ll call them Dr. Mean and Dr. Meaner — would command me to push a woman’s legs open wider and yell at her to push harder, so that the baby would be born faster, and he’d be done sooner. Then he’d cut a huge episiotomy, especially if the woman had indicated any displeasure with her treatment.
Finally, after sewing her up (and making sick reference to “an extra stitch for the boyfriend”) Dr. Mean would sweep this hand — and arm — up inside her, supposedly to ensure that every single piece of placenta was out of her uterus. (In reality, this painful procedure is necessary after maybe one in five hundred births.) Most women arched up off the bed, and some cried out for the doctor to stop — then later apologized for being disrespectful. After being thanked for this abuse, Dr. Mean would usually say something like “Keep your legs closed now. I don’t want to see you in here next year.” Then he would hurry out, leaving the door open in utter disregard of the patient’s modesty. Out at the desk, he’d repeat again and again how stupid that patient had been, how stupid they all were. And that smell! Didn’t they wash? And he’d shudder as he washed his soft pudgy hands.
The only reason I continued to work at that hospital was that I’d get to deliver a few babies myself in the evenings. Here’s how it would happen: I’d call Dr. Meaner at home and inform him that his patient was in labor and would probably would deliver within half an hour. “Well, I just sat down to dinner,” he’d respond. “I’m not coming back there until I’m done.” (This is completely against medical ethics for a doctor on call.) Then I’d gladly go in the room, shut the door, dim the lights, and prepare for a hushed, calm birth.
I remember one birth particularly well. The husband held his wife while I quietly caught their beautiful son, who swam out easily, his eyes wide and searching for his mother’s. We all shed a few tears, because it was obvious how much this baby meant to them, and how aware and alive he was.
I was silently cleaning up the blood and water, and the couple were kissing and holding their son, when the door burst open and Dr. Meaner swept in, bringing with him the noise and fluorescence of the outer ward. He glared at me and said, “The baby’s here already? You weren’t supposed to do that without me! Let’s get that placenta out of there.” And without putting on scrubs or warning the woman, he reached his arm up inside her and pulled the placenta off the uterine wall. She nearly leapt off the bed in pain. Then he decreed that the newborn be sent to the nursery immediately for at least a four-hour observation, ignoring the mother’s pleas that the child remain with her. Finally, he announced that the patient had torn — which I knew she had not — and demanded a large needle to sew her intact vagina!
After it was over, I confronted Dr Meaner about his practices. He turned from his scrawled chart and looked directly at me for the first time ever. “Don’t come back to this hospital if you don’t like the way we do things,” he said. “I know what that woman needed. It’s too bad she’s too stupid to know.”
He later signed the birth certificate as the delivering physician and was paid in full.
I never went back to that hospital.
Mill Valley, California
A few decades ago in San Francisco, I was “in the rackets,” as I proudly called it. I was mainly a call girl, although shoplifting, or “boosting,” was also a specialty of mine.
I was soon introduced to a “racket doctor.” His office was in an old building on Market Street, behind a door with his name emblazoned in gold letters on opaque glass: Abelson Weinberg, M.D.
Abe was short, stout, and jolly, and had the purest blue eyes. All day long he’d sit behind his desk telling stories of the famous gangsters he’d treated for gunshot wounds in the twenties and thirties, and describing the ravages of syphilis and gonorrhea before the discovery of penicillin. “You young people just don’t realize how lucky you are,” he’d say.
In all the time I was his patient, I never once saw him get up from behind his desk. He never laid a hand on me; his nurse administered the weekly tests for venereal disease, which were the only service he provided — that and dispensing pills from his big Physician’s Desk Reference.
I would often sit and visit with Abe, because it was obvious that he loved conversation, and thumb through the reference book as if it were a catalogue. When I saw a pretty pill, one that appealed to me aesthetically, I’d point to it and ask, “What will this do?”
“You’ll never know until you try it,” Abe would say, writing out a prescription. “Psychic energizers” were just coming to vogue then, and I sampled every color.
One day, worried that all my sexual activity might be affecting my health, I asked Abe if he’d check to make sure I didn’t have cancer.
“Don’t worry about cancer,” he said. “Worrying is how you get it.”
I thought he was crazy then, but now I think he was right.
My mother had an undying faith in doctors. Even after her physician diagnosed her breast cancer much too late, then prescribed a medication that caused bleeding stomach ulcers, my mother still liked this young woman, and continued to show everyone her picture.
Twice, the doctors performed laser surgery on the bleeding ulcers, but their efforts were unsuccessful, and my mother developed massive infections in her abdomen, possibly from unclean instruments. She was given large doses of antibiotics, which caused a severe yeast infection. Even then, she kept up her faith in doctors.
When I visited her in the hospital, she was being fed intravenously, was breathing with the help of a respirator, and was self-administering morphine every few minutes by means of a button in her hand. I summoned Dr. Jones, her new doctor, to her room to discuss trying chemotherapy again. He said we could try chemo, but at best it could only keep her in this state. She still had hopes of traveling to California for my brother’s wedding, and the doctor joked with her about this “vacation.” (Later, he told me he was only trying to determine her grip on reality.) Then he asked her what she wanted him to do for her. She looked at him with sad eyes and said, “Cure me. Just cure me!”
She died a day later.
Elaine S. Nussbaum
Last May, after living with them for nine years, I decided to have my breast implants removed. I’d had them put in at twenty-two, when I was modeling bathing suits. It might have seemed like a business decision, but really I just wanted to feel more voluptuous.
A few years later, I started hearing reports of severe health problems attributed to silicone leakage from breast implants. I was stunned and immediately wanted them out, but I’d had a bad reaction to the anesthesia during the initial surgery and couldn’t imagine going under the knife again. So, for the next seven years, I lived uneasily with my implants, dreading the day I’d wake up with strange symptoms, or perhaps notice that one was smaller than the other, a sign of leakage. But aside from the sloshing noise when I went jogging, no problems appeared.
Eventually, I got up the courage to have the implants removed. Through a friend, I got the name of a doctor in Beverly Hills, who turned out to be a tall, attractive man with wide shoulders and a deep voice. The fact that he was so handsome caught me by surprise, but somehow made me feel better, too. He and I discussed various ways to remove the implants, the risks involved with the surgery, and so on. Then he showed me to the examination room, where I put on a paper gown with the opening in front and waited for him to return. The gown made me feel depersonalized, but also helped me to think of the experience as medical and technical, rather than sensual.
The doctor came in, took a look at my breasts, felt around the edges to see how the implants were placed, and had me put my hands on my hips and press down, so he could see how the implants shifted. Then he told me to get dressed and come back to his office, saying he didn’t like to let the patient sit there half naked while he had the advantage of being dressed. I liked his personal yet professional manner. We scheduled the operation for a week later.
The night before the operation, a Sunday night, the doctor called me at home to see if I had any questions. I was comforted to know that he took so much interest in how I was feeling before the surgery. I was also distracted by his deep, sexy voice as he talked to me about the operation.
The morning of the operation, as I sat on the table letting him draw on me in ink where he was going to cut and sew, I suddenly wondered whether he was a good doctor, and how the scars would look. I also realized it was too late to be having second thoughts. “I know you are going to make them perfect,” I said, then realized with embarrassment that my comment might have sounded suggestive.
I went under comfortably, and the next thing I remember is being lifted onto a gurney by the doctor and mumbling to the nurses about how strong he was. Later, when I was more coherent, he told me the operation had gone well.
The next day, my girlfriend brought me back to let the doctor look at the sutures. He wasn’t as smooth and confident as before. He grasped for words and went on a bit with his answers. When he left the room, my girlfriend raised her eyebrows and smiled knowingly at me.
A week later I returned to have the stitches removed. He seemed nervous as he pulled out the sutures. Afterward, we talked about what to expect during the healing. He said he would soon be out of my life. I shyly joked that perhaps I could think of something else for him to lift or tuck. We changed the subject, sharing stories about the mutual friend who had recommended him. He said she teased him for being so spiritual, calling him the “black Jesus.” Suddenly, he got up from his desk. “I have to do this,” he said, and he walked around to where I was sitting, bent over, and kissed me. It was a long, wet kiss. He was shaking. I was, too.
Then, without a word, he abruptly walked out, and I heard him with a patient in the examination room. I felt both aroused and betrayed. His departure struck me as cowardly, and I didn’t appreciate being left there alone at such an awkward moment. Finally, he came back and asked for my phone number. “You have it in your file,” I said. He said he wouldn’t go into his file for my number. So I gave it to him and watched as he wrote it down with a shaky hand, which struck me as funny, because plastic surgeons are supposed to have hands of steel.
Santa Monica, California
When I was first married, at seventeen, I asked my doctor how I could have an orgasm. He told me I was very young and sometimes you had to grow into them.
At twenty-one, I asked a different doctor how to have an orgasm. We were alone in the examining room, and he kissed me on the mouth, then proceeded to masturbate me under the little gown I was wearing. When the nurse knocked on the door, I quickly dressed and ran out of there, never to return.
In my thirties, having had two children, I asked yet another doctor how to have an orgasm. He told me that some women never have them, and I should probably just get used to it. Later, I bought the book Our Bodies, Ourselves and learned how to have one myself. I guess they didn’t teach that in medical school.
Does the area of the inner thigh where the leg meets the pelvis have a name? It’s not a place I really thought about until three months ago, when I found two small bumps there, on the outskirts of my pubic hair. They were painless and unobtrusive; my lover never even noticed them. So, after a few days of anxious prodding and close observation, I decided to ignore them. The alternative — going to a doctor — was too intimidating.
I’ve never had much luck with doctors. The one that I was brought to as a child, usually in tears, was always cold and abrupt, and seemed to hate children. Then there was the doctor at my neighborhood clinic, who prescribed me the “morning-after pill” when my boyfriend’s condom broke. She first berated me for half an hour about the “abortion” I was about to have, and wrote the prescription only after I assured her that I had made peace with “my God” about my decision.
After being shocked by an exposed electrical outlet, I experienced headaches and nausea, and went to another clinic. While the doctor examined me, he made snide remarks to the nurse about how someone could be dumb enough to put her finger in a socket. He then announced that I was wasting his time, and laughed me out of his office.
Now, three months after I first discovered those little bumps on my thigh, one of them has disappeared without treatment. The other, however, is red and swollen, and appears bigger each morning. A couple of weeks ago, it started to become painful to the touch, and now it hurts when I walk. But I’ve decided to ignore it. Maybe it will fade away like the first one, without any fuss or effort. Or maybe, someday soon, my fear will overcome my anger and humiliation.
When I was growing up, no visiting royalty could have merited more pageantry than the doctor making a house call. First, the patient had to be cleaned up — face washed, hair combed, clean pajamas put on — and the bedding had to be changed. Then, next to the bed, my mother placed a chair, a stack of fresh towels, and a glass of water (in case the doctor wanted a drink). It didn’t escape me that suddenly the doctor was the center of attention, rather than me, the suffering patient.
By the time the bell rang, signaling the arrival of G-d’s representative on earth, my heart was pounding. I remember thinking that, after all this, I had better be really sick.
Clark, New Jersey
My father, the surgeon, was seldom home during my youth, preferring the companionship of science, scrub nurses, and Jim Beam whiskey to that of his family. When they were together, my parents mostly argued, and life around the house was tense and sad. As a teenager, I was their go-between (a job I hated) and a confidant to both. My mother ended up on Valium, and my father stayed away longer and longer until, one day, they announced they would get a divorce, and my father officially moved out.
Two weeks later, I returned home from school to find my father’s truck in the carport and my mother gone. I discovered my father slumped in a chair in the living room, crying pitifully and muttering to himself, a twelve-gauge shotgun propped between his legs and pointed vaguely at his head. I knelt at his feet to plead with him, and finally managed to pry the gun from his hands. Through his sobs, he begged me to let him come home again — as if I had anything to say about it. Not knowing what to do, I fumbled through the medicine cabinet and came back with several of my mother’s Valiums. I handed them to my father, who washed them down with three or four long pulls of whiskey. After a moment, he set the bottle on the counter, looked at his watch, mumbled that he had surgery in half an hour, and left. It was a miracle he could even stand up. For a long time, I wondered what kind of surgery he performed that day, and on whom.
I was not in good shape. I’d let myself fall into a deep depression, and an angry boil had developed near my anus. My sister loaded me into her car and delivered me to the hospital. The doctor looked at my butt and pronounced, “Anal fistula, very advanced. It’ll have to be lanced immediately.” Five hours later, my boil had been sliced, drained, and packed, and I was lying in the recovery room feeling relieved that it was over.
After a year and a half, the fistula reappeared. This time I marched myself down to the hospital and waited in line alone. When my turn came, I pulled down my pants and showed my butt to the examining doctor. “I remember you,” he said. “Emergency surgery, about a year ago. It’s got to be lanced again. This time you’ll have to have reconstructive surgery.” He began to fill out the necessary paperwork.
I zipped up my pants and tried to look him in the eye, but light bounced off his glasses. “Isn’t there another way to treat this?” I asked. “How about herbal remedies?” I wanted a gentler approach, not another cut, but the doctor held firm: It would have to be surgery. Nothing else would work.
I saw then how he perceived me: as a composite of physical parts that, like those of a machine, could be removed, replaced, or reconfigured. True to his training, the doctor wanted to “fix” my broken part. As I walked out, I could almost hear him thinking, Just you wait.
A few days later I found a book that ascribed metaphysical causes to physical conditions. The cause for anal fistula was “holding on to garbage of the past.” I started a meditation program to clear away my mental garbage, and in three months the fistula was gone.
I was about three years old and having a grand time jumping up and down on my parents’ bed when, after one particularly high bounce, I came down wrong and landed hard on the floor, chin first, tongue between my teeth. The impact nearly severed my tongue.
My mother heard me screaming and ran up from the cellar, where she’d been doing laundry in the wringer washing machine. My father was gone that day, probably out stalking deer, or pulling up walleyes in the boozy haze of an ice-fishing shanty. Mom called my father’s younger brother, the uncle who’d studied sculpture and would later introduce me to art. The only doctor they could rouse was the one from the iron mine where my father worked — the last physician anyone in town would choose to summon.
When the doctor finally arrived, he decided that, because my sister might have infected me with rheumatic fever, it wouldn’t be safe to use anesthetic. So, with my dear uncle pinning me to the living-room couch, the foul, smelling doctor proceeded to sew up my tongue. I remember flailing my legs like a trapped rabbit, and his huge fingers inside my mouth. Then I was outside myself, hovering near the ceiling, seeing below me the two men on their knees, and my mother standing a few feet back from them, her eyes wide, both hands covering her mouth.
I am eleven. It’s a warm day in early fall. It must be the weekend, because we are all home, even my father, the doctor. His white Saab is parked in the driveway, and he’s about to back it down the hill and put it in the garage. I rush over and eagerly ask him if I can sit on the car while he moves it. He agrees, and I perch myself on the hood. As we start down the driveway, the rush of air is exhilarating. The pavement sails by right underneath my feet, like water beneath a boat.
When we reach the bottom of the hill, the car abruptly stops, then goes forward, toward the garage. I lose my balance and grope hopelessly for a handhold on the smooth metal to keep myself from falling in front of the moving car. Unless I do something quick, I will be crushed. As soon as I hit the pavement, I roll to one side.
When it’s over, I find myself sitting on soft green grass, shivering and shaking, my father beside me, asking how I am. My left wrist is broken; I know it. I hold it up for him to see. The hand hangs at an odd angle, like a flower whose stem is snapped. “My wrist,” I say. “I think it’s broken.” My father looks at it briefly and announces, with full medical authority, “No, it’s all right. There’s nothing wrong.”
I go to my bedroom, where I lie in bed, suspended between the painful certainty of a broken bone and my father’s definitive denial of it. The room is very dark, with cracks of sunlight framing the edges of the drawn shades. My left arm, now useless, is stretched out on a pillow beside me. I feel strangely detached from it, except when a small movement brings back the sharp pain.
When my mother sees my condition, she rushes me to the hospital, where X-rays confirm the bone is broken, and I get a cast that I must wear for six weeks. My friends write their names on it. My father says nothing.
Thirty-five years later, when I find the courage to ask him why he did not immediately take me to the hospital, he replies indignantly, “We had a football game to go to that afternoon. And besides . . . it was only a hairline fracture.”
Awakened from deep slumber by a piercing pain, I start to get up to make my way to my parents’ bedroom, but I can’t. I’m paralyzed. My screams wake my brother, who shares a room with me. He has a hard time believing that his four-year-old kid brother can’t walk.
Mother, now awake, tries desperately to soothe me, whispering and wiping my brow while my dad shouts in a panic at the operator on the phone. I lie limp as my unresponsive body is carried to the ambulance. The paramedics make every effort to reassure me, but I am above them now, numb, watching their useless attempts to keep my hopes up.
That’s when I see an angelic figure floating toward me. For the first time since this started, I am at peace. I listen as the angel’s voice gives calm assurances, then asks me what my favorite food is. “Chicken soup,” I eagerly reply. As the words leave my mouth, my eyes slowly focus on a white lab coat with “Dr. Matthews” stitched on the breast pocket.
“Chicken soup it is,” he says, “but first you must come back to us.”
Larry Fergeson II
I sometimes feel that my doctor does not trust me. As he examines me, he goes to great lengths to protect himself against potential accusations of sexual harassment. He calls in a nurse to observe, even though I have on my pants and bra. The gown is on the wrong way, he tells me: it’s supposed to tie in the back. He steps outside while I put it on correctly, then knocks twice before reentering. So what if he sees an inch of my skin? As he barely lifts the gown to press on my stomach, I wonder how and why we have reached this puritanical extreme.
I think of my grandparents’ doctor in France, bending down to enter through the low door of their old house, a hand-rolled cigarette in the corner of his mouth, his plump, beat-up brown briefcase in hand. Through the open bedroom door, I hear him greet my grandmother joyfully, and joke with her about whether she has been taking her medicine. I hear her quiet laughter, her worried questions, his deep, reassuring voice. I hear him discussing politics with my grandfather over a glass of wine, his arm resting on the red kitchen tablecloth.
I wish I was back home, in France, where the doctors themselves take your pulse, your temperature, your blood pressure; where they make house calls, even in the city; where they couldn’t care less about lawsuits; where they make you feel comfortable with your body.
As a nurse’s aid, I worked in a home for Alzheimer’s patients one block from the Mormon temple. The residents’ devout relatives could deal with any symptom except fecal incontinence. For that, they needed a specialist: me.
Then I became a registered nurse on a burn unit. Some people got burned in silly ways, like stirring boiling oatmeal with a finger because there wasn’t a spoon about, but this did not detract from the brutal nature of the work: torturous dressing changes twice a day on children too young to understand; ventilated lungs filled with pus; the endless diarrhea brought on by tube feedings and too many antibiotics — this was the stuff of my life.
Now I am a doctor, and with my white coat people can’t see the shit stains all over me.
After my father died suddenly of a heart attack at thirty-eight, I began to act up. My mother couldn’t handle her own grief and mine, too, so she sent me to live with my uncle and his family in Ohio. I did little besides go to school and lift weights. I was seventeen.
One day, an aunt called and told me I should come home; my mother was sick. When I asked if it was serious, she said only that my mother’s arm was numb and that she was losing her voice. I probed her mercilessly, but she would not change or add to her story.
I come from a long line of liars who hide the truth to save themselves or others from discomfort. I think of them as the corporals who blindfold prisoners at executions, as if a thin piece of cloth will take away the fear of death.
In spite of my family’s record of deception, I felt strangely hopeful as I traveled home. It wasn’t youthful optimism — mine had eroded when my father died. No, my hope rested on a combination of mathematical improbability and a childish faith that an omniscient, loving God could not be so cruel as to deliver me another crippling blow in such a short time.
At the hospital, I found my mother looking twenty years older, her bleached hair matted to her forehead. Deep lines I’d never seen before had formed on her face. When she opened her eyes, something was terribly off: one pupil was larger than the other, her gaze distant. She tried to talk, but her words came out like alphabet soup. One arm flopped toward a cup of ice on the night stand. She trembled as I pressed the cup to her lips, and ice, mixed with tears, tumbled down her chin.
Feeling dizzy, I ran across the hall to the nurses’ station to find out what had happened. They told me I would have to see the doctor. I did, but first I asked them to do something with my mother’s hair.
The doctor spoke blandly of clots, hemorrhages, and cranial hemispheres. Several times, he used the word apoplexy.
“What’s apoplexy?” I asked.
“Apoplexy?” he said.
“Why, apoplexy is another name for a stroke. Your mother has had a stroke, Mr. Hardin.”
I was in shock. All I could think was that no one had ever called me Mr. Hardin before.
Afterward, I sat down in an old wooden chair in the hall outside my mother’s room, lit a cigarette, and inhaled deeply. (In those days you could smoke in the hospital.) In the background I could hear my mother’s delirious gibberish, her strange new tongue. I sat hating the doctor for a few hours, and went on to hate him some more over the next several months, but I finally stopped. After all, why should I hate him? At least he had given me the truth.
In 1978, when I began attending the University of California at Berkeley through the Disabled Students Program, the program director recommended Doctor Pelle to me. When the time came for my first check-up, my attendant Gifford pushed me in my wheelchair to the medical office building. In the lobby, we found the elevator was too small to accommodate my wheelchair, which is about five feet long. (I have to lie flat.)
“I’m going upstairs to talk to the doctor,” Gifford said.
A few minutes later, he returned with Dr. Pelle. They made an odd-looking pair: Gifford, a thin young teenager with blond hair down to his waist; and Dr. Pelle, a portly middle-aged man wearing a white lab coat.
“I think we can get him into the elevator if we pick up the wheelchair and turn it around,” Gifford said.
“OK,” Dr. Pelle said. “Where do I grab it?”
Together, they managed to get me into the elevator, up to Dr. Pelle’s third-floor office, and back down again after the examination. Once Dr. Pelle had left us alone in the lobby, Gifford looked at me with his mouth open in shock. “I’ve never seen a doctor do physical labor before,” he said.
I was sixteen, and lying on a table in a hospital gown. The doctor’s face had deep wrinkles, almost folds of skin, and his nose spread out in all directions. His voice was gravelly, his nose congested, and he spoke in a slow monotone. He was trying to hypnotize me, but instead of going into a trance I had to restrain myself from giggling. Eight other psychiatrists and interns were watching the procedure. When the doctor realized he wasn’t having any success, he decided to inject me with sodium pentothal — a hypnotic better known as “truth serum.” Although I protested vehemently, he shot me up with a large dose, then asked me what day it was. I sat up, looked into the stern faces around the room, and yelled at the top of my lungs, “I hate doctors!”
My dad’s heart attack started out as a severe case of indigestion — at least, that’s what I wanted to believe. But when the emergency room’s double doors swung open and my mother emerged alone, her face pasty and slack, I knew I was wrong. “They think he’s had a heart attack,” she said in a dreamy voice. My stomach dropped, and I would have crumpled if she hadn’t caught my elbow, her fingers digging roughly into my arm.
Her next announcement snapped me out of my shock like a hard slap: Daddy, who wouldn’t so much as take an aspirin when he had a headache, was stubbornly refusing to sign a consent form for the clot-busting drug that could save his life — not until I, his daughter, the nurse, came and explained to him every tiny detail about the medicine.
My tears were instantly dry, and a calm came over me, though inside I was dizzy with fear. I strode purposefully into the curtained room, ignoring the electrodes and IVs, unconcerned that I might be in the doctor’s way. I had the most important task of my life before me, and I was going to do it right.
Daddy was surrounded by nurses, prodding, murmuring, and soothing, while he writhed in pain. I tried to calm him, and held a kidney-shaped basin to his mouth to catch his vomit, which splashed on my clothes and arms. (I didn’t care; he could have thrown up directly into my hands.) The doctor stood at the foot of Daddy’s gurney, arms folded across his chest. “Mr. Andrews,” he remarked, “you’re having a heart attack right now.” It was the worst thing he could have said, and only increased my father’s already stratospheric anxiety level.
Affecting a calm confidence, I explained to Daddy about the streptokinase, and how he had to sign a consent form before they could administer it. I beseeched, cajoled, wheedled, and even willed him to scratch his name across that line. Waiting for him to decide, I laughed and chatted with the nurses, as if to say, See, Daddy, this is no big deal. It happens every day. Everything is fine.
Finally, looking at me with glassy eyes, my father scrawled his name on the form. The nurses were at once busy again, turning on the streptokinase full blast. As the drug began to drip into Daddy’s arm, making its way to the clogged artery of his heart, I envisioned a brave knight on a white horse, coming to the rescue.
I’ll never forget that doctor, how he saw my father as nothing more than a giant heart on a gurney — just something to fix — rather than as a man enduring a painful, frightening experience he didn’t understand.
I never met my wife Alison’s father. In photographs of him, I see a big man with the impish smile many pediatricians seem to have. I notice his large hands and imagine one draped comfortingly over a small bony shoulder. He cared for children with cystic fibrosis, staying by their sides through the bouts of pneumonia, the racking coughs that prevented sleep, the daily struggle to breathe.
Over the years, Alison’s father put on weight, and with his family history of heart attacks, he knew his health was precarious. So he began to jog and swim with the same zeal and obsessiveness he showed for medicine. Sure enough, he lost the weight and kept it off. Then one day, while out running, he was struck by a car and killed.
Years before he died, Alison’s dad had lost his wedding ring. It slipped off while he was gardening. After a frantic search produced no ring, he purchased another, and it was that second ring that was buried with him. Years later, a gardener found the lost gold band, and when Alison and I married, she placed on my finger the ring from the garden.
Now I examine patients infected with a virus Alison’s dad never knew. I touch the worn gold ring to their bodies as I feel for a hint of liver, search for lymph nodes that have shrunk due to new HIV medications, and hold the frail hands of those for whom these medicines are too little, too late. As I treat my patients, I imagine all the tiny tummies and chests this ring has touched, the damp hair brushed from feverish brows, and I feel the power of the healer upon whose hand it once rode.
David Alain Wohl
Carrboro, North Carolina