by JIM KNIPFEL
April 17, 2016
About three years ago I was finally coaxed into agreeing to find a new doctor to get a check-up. There was nothing noticeably awry with me, but it had been a while and, given years of bad habits, it was just a good idea. Or so I was told.
The doctor I’d been seeing in my old neighborhood for several years had retired, thank god, never did trust that guy, so I started looking around Bay Ridge. Bay Ridge is a neighborhood overflowing with inescapable doctors offices of every stripe. There are storefront doctors, basement doctors, and several medical office complexes. Lots of dentists and podiatrists and cardiologists and shrinks and eye doctors. More podiatrists than you might think necessary, including one who sold Harley-Davidson memorabilia out of his office (or so the sign outside promised). Yeah, if I’d been having foot pain I’d be all set. The problem was there were precious few general practitioners, or at least any who took what passed for my insurance. I eventually did find one, a cardiologist who doubled as a GP when needed, a tall, loud man in his late forties with a Greek last name I was never able to pronounce. The real selling point for me was that his office was just a few blocks away from the apartment, which is how I generally select my doctors.
Well, in my first meeting with him he told me that living wills weren’t valid in New York, despite what I may have been told by the New York attorney who put mine together or the New York law office where it was currently filed. He also told me that a do-not-resuscitate order meant he wouldn’t try to save me if I was having a heart attack. Then he offered, almost demanded, to be named my medical proxy in case of emergency. I told him I’d probably have, you know, my wife take on that responsibility instead of some clearly insane man I’d only just met.
He then sent me for three echocardiograms, two stress tests, told me I had a heart murmur, then in the same conversation told me I had a very strong heart with no murmur whatsoever, then told me I was going to have a stroke because one of the arteries in my neck looked weird, which is why I needed a fourth echocardiogram. That’s about when I stopped going to see him anymore.
I happily swore off doctors after that. Couldn’t recall a single one I’d had in a while who’d done me a damn bit of good, save for one goofy dermatologist. But a few blissful and health-soaked years after fleeing that psychotic Greek, (and with new insurance), Morgan and I both decided it was about time again to try and get set up with a regular primary doctor in the neighborhood. She got online and did the preliminary research, narrowing down a list of potential doctors within walking distance who accepted our insurance, were willing to act as primary care physicians, and weren’t insane. Finally she had a list of four or five possibilities, and I started making phone calls. In the end the only one who had any openings for new patients in the next eight months was a cardiologist with an Italian last name. His office wasn’t as close as the crazy Greek’s, but it still sounded promising so I grabbed the next available appointment.
On a cold and sloppy Monday afternoon we made the mile-long walk to the office complex, found our way to the third floor, and checked in. It was a shabby, sad little fluorescent-lit office, but most of the doctor’s offices I’ve visited in recent years could be described exactly the same way. The first thing I took as a good sign was there was no television blaring out some godawful afternoon talk show aimed at housewives. Few things jack my blood pressure up to the red zone faster. Instead we could just sit back and listen to the gruff but friendly middle-aged Brooklyn ladies fielding phone calls.
“No, Ray, we don’t do that no more, ya hear me? No, we can’t just fax it over to yas, You want that, ya gotta come to the office, see the doctor, and have him give it to yas himself . . . Ray, ya listenin’? No, I’m tellin’ ya he don’t do that no more! Ray, I’m sorry, but them’s the new rules . . . Since when? Since whenever!”
The other strange thing apart from the lack of an endlessly droning television was the lack of patients. The tiny waiting room was empty save for Morgan and me. People came and went, but nobody was waiting, staring glumly at the carpet. I didn’t know if that was a good sign or not, but considering every other doctor’s office I’d been to in recent years had been packed, meaning I could look forward to at least a couple of hours of waiting and listening to that fucking inescapable television, it seemed promising. I was less concerned about what it might say about the doctor than what it said about our chances of actually getting in at the appointed time. And sure enough, at one on the dot, a nurse called Morgan’s name.
As I sat there waiting, two EMTs burst into the office and asked, “anyone here need help?”
There was an awkward pause before one of the receptionists said, “not that I know of.”
“Yeah, see?” one of the EMTs explained. “We just got a phone number, no name or anything. We think it came from inside the building somewhere.” That sounded like the end of a troubling urban legend, and I got a little worried. Then the other one had the bright idea of going back down to the truck and actually calling the number.
“Yeah,” the first one said as they were waiting for the elevator. “This shit happens all the time. You drive around and around looking for an address that don’t exist. I think it’s like a game of telephone, right? They get a call at the call center, and it gets passed along through three different people before the dispatcher sends it to us. Who knows if someone changed a three to a seven at some point, right? Then whaddya do? Call the dispatcher back and he tells us to forget it.”
Well, that didn’t exactly boost my confidence for the next time I had to call 911. I forgot about it soon enough, though, when Morgan came back and they called me in. She didn’t seem terribly traumatized, which I took as a good sign.
The doctor was a tiny, wizened and ancient dwarf with a thick and rattling Italian accent. Most of the meeting was held in complete silence as I sat on the examination table and he sat at the computer.
“You forgive me,” he said. “Everything on computer now, and I am not good typist.”
He would ask a question (“Do you have any medical problems right now?”), I would answer him (“No”), and then the air would be quiet for the next few minutes apart from the rain against the window as he slowly and painfully typed in my responses one . . . key . . . at . . . a . . . time. In spite of the uncomfortable silence, everything seemed to be going fine until he asked the fateful question, “Do you smoke?”
Okay, I have maybe a stupid policy of being honest with doctors. I figure if I’m paying these people to treat my assorted maladies, it only makes sense to let them know. Otherwise it’d just be a waste of everyone’s time and I might as well just stay home. Usually I can count on a slight slap on the wrist, a half-hearted chastising, or at the very least a “Well, you know I have to tell you this, but . . . ” Then with that out of the way we can get on with the business at hand.
The little Italian dwarf, however, rose from his chair after registering my response and stood in front of me, suddenly gesticulating wildly. In a blink the slow ancient dwarf became an ancient cartoon Mafia boss (or as Morgan suggested later, Brother Theodore).
“I DEMAND that you stop smoking this instant!” he croaked. “Smoking KILLS!” Then he added, I guess for emphasis, “KILLS! KILLS! KILLS!”
“I understand that.”
“Maybe no today, maybe no tomorrow, but you smoke you will DIE from smoking!”
“I understand.” I was starting to get a little worried, convinced he was about to slap me in the face several times while roaring, “You can ACT! . . . Like a MAN!” As I awaited the inevitable, I reminded myself to stick the pack of Marlboros in my pants pocket before I saw him next time. Then he took a step back and adopted a more conciliatory tone. Sort of, anyway.
“I can HELP you!” he continued to sputter and gesticulate. “You can try electronic cigarettes! ONE poison is better than . . . TWO HUNDRED FIFTY poison! I can get you HYPNOSIS! Or ACCUPUNCTURE! . . . in the EARS!”
“I understand. Thank you,” I said, though I thought it best to steer clear of that ear acupuncture thing if at all possible.
Well, that was essentially the end of my check up. He took my blood pressure (understandably high) and my pulse (normal) and listened to my heart and lungs (both as normal as normal can be). I think all that just enraged him further, because even though he saw no evidence of anything untoward, he still scheduled me for a CAT scan of my lungs. Then he insisted I come back in a month so he could berate me some more. There were no blood tests, no urine samples, no prostate check, no medical history, no nothing. Just a lot of silence and yelling and I was on my way.
Lighting that first smoke in the rain on the sidewalk in front of the building (and I needed it after that), it occurred to me he was the first doctor I’d ever seen who behaved the way I always thought doctors were supposed to react when they learned one of their patients was still stupid enough to smoke. Which is why I pretty much decided then it was time to keep looking for a new doctor.
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