by JIM KNIPFEL
December 20, 2015
The Scandalous Neurologist
Shortly before I left Philly, the neurologist who’d finally pinpointed a brain lesion as the cause of my seizures referred me to another neurologist in New York. Although he’d started me on a regimen of anti-convulsive medication, the proper dosage had yet to be established and I was still having seizures on a daily basis, so he thought it would be a good idea to have someone keep track of my condition. It seemed like wise counsel, so a couple of weeks after arriving in Brooklyn and getting more or less settled in, I made an appointment.
Dr. Totino was a slight, soft-spoken man in his mid-fifties who reminded me a lot of an old philosophy professor I knew. He was relaxed, clearly quite smart, and deeply respected. He had a fancy office in a fancy Upper East Side hospital, and I learned over time he was the neurologist of choice for aging rich and powerful types like Jackie Onassis and Richard Nixon. Unlike most doctors I’d dealt with, he was also cultured, had a taste for music and theater, and had read a book or two beyond the medical texts. He even had a very dry sense of humor, and took a few weeks off every year to go fishing in Vietnam for some reason. Interesting guy, Totino, and I was clearly lucky to be seeing him.
For the first few months I saw him every other week as he ran a battery of standard tests and tried to zero in on the proper dosage of the anti-convulsive. Amazing thing was, although it was clear he was top of the line, he apparently took pity on my torn jeans, ratty army jacket, and lack of insurance, and never charged me a dime.
The more I saw him, the more he seemed to take an interest in my personal life, and even after I was all set with the medication and the seizures were beginning to fade, I still went to see him every couple of months just to check in.
Well, curious about the possibilities of this neurologist, my wife at the time, who’d suffered from depression her whole life, asked if she could come along with me one time, maybe get a free consultation of her own in the process.
The first hint that maybe all was not quite as it should be with this highly esteemed New York neurologist came during that first appointment. My then-wife mentioned she’d been feeling depressed. With no other questions or tests or any such thing, he reached behind his desk and pulled out a shopping bag packed with hundreds of Prozac samples. Without knowing anything else about her or her background, he handed her the shopping bag and we went on our way. Again, there was no charge for any of it.
In the following weeks she began popping the pills like candy, and when she started running low she returned to Dr. Totino on her own to get a free refill, which he happily provided. Then other unexpected perks began creeping in. He had season tickets to every major cultural institution in the city, and began passing along tickets to performances and concerts he wouldn’t be attending. Way I read it, he just thought these were things we might like, knowing full well we’d never be able to afford them ourselves. So we went to see the National Theater for the Deaf perform Our Town, and sat third row center at the Met to see Kiri Te Kawana sing Aida. My wife had always ached to be upscale and cultured, and this was the kind of hoity-toity crap she’d always longed to do.
One night Totino asked if we cared to join him to see a performance by some monologist at some Upper East Side theater. Turned out to be a young black woman doing an Eric Bogosian-type shtick about The Black Experience for a bunch of wealthy Upper East Side dowagers. So she did bits about the trials of living in the ghetto, having the Klan burn a cross in her front yard, and pretty much every damn cliché you could imagine, and the old Jewish ladies ate it up.
Afterwards we went to a pleasant little bar in the neighborhood, and he asked what we thought.
“It was a fucking minstrel show that fed right into the white guilt of a bunch of rich old Jewish ladies,” I told him.
It was an obnoxious thing to tell the guy who’d been kind enough to invite us along and pay for the tickets, but there were several factors at work by that point. I was drunk for one thing, and had been for weeks. I was an obnoxious punk rock kid still, and quite intentionally so, who took great pride in speaking bluntly and honestly, even at the most inappropriate of times. Mostly, though, at that particular moment on that particular night, it had finally become clear to me how deeply infatuated my wife was with this guy. He was everything she was looking for, and everything I would never be. He was smart, erudite, gentle, cool, successful, scientific, cultured, and extremely wealthy. And I’m not even going to get into the father issues at play.
Thing is, I not only didn’t blame Totino for this—he really was just a very nice fellow, perhaps to a fault—I didn’t really care that much. She was throwing herself at him with a vengeance, and it apparently worked. The marriage by that time was a shambles as it was, I was going through a fifth of whiskey a day, and was hardly the most pleasant person to be around.
So she began spending more time with Totino, sometimes during his regular office hours, sometimes afterwards. Eventually she moved out.
Sick thing is, though, I kept going back to see him myself as my regular neurologist, because I knew he really had no choice at that point but to keep seeing me for free. What, he’s gonna start charging me after running off with my wife? He even started giving me shopping bags full of antidepressants for my own use.
I recall one afternoon quite vividly. It was a bright summer day, I had no job and hadn’t for awhile, and was sitting in front of the television watching Animaniacs. There was a jug of cheap white wine next to me, and the shopping bag loaded with Paxil samples in front of me. I was staring at the screen as I deliberately and mechanically popped pill after pill out of the foil blister packs into a mason jar. There were hundreds and hundreds of pills. The show was funny. I was drunk and despairing, and by the time I’d popped the last pill out of the foil packet, I had a massive blister on the tip of my right thumb. All those pills never did me a bit of good.
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