I would rather write this column about all the fun times I’ve been having under these spring-y blue skies, riding my bike in the wind, looking for ducklings in Patterson Park, fantasizing about a summer full of field trips to Middle Branch Park and Oregon Ridge and out to the swimming holes of Gunpowder Falls, but instead this column is about my field trip to the doctor’s office, because I’ve spent most of the last week just being sick.
I learned most of what I know about how to be sick from my father, an RN with a strong suspicion of organized medicine. He taught me that you never go to the doctor, not unless it’s something really, really serious, because most things can be taken care of at home and with a little time, and mostly, he was right (but don’t tell him I said that). Back in the 1980s he helped write a home health care guide called the “Healthwise Handbook,” all about how to take care of minor medical maladies at home. I loved this book and spent hours pouring over my favorite entries—how to remove a ring that’s stuck on (hint: floss and butter), how to remove a fish hook (it’s gotta go out at the same angle it came in) and my all-time favorite: how to tell if your erectile dysfunction is physical or psychological. I was fascinated by so much of this entry—what’s an erectile? How could something that’s happening to the body be a problem of the mind (a question that’s motivated much of my research as an academic, now that I think about it)? Mostly I loved the simple solution. According to my youthful reading, the penis becomes erect something like 40 times a night (that number’s got to be high, but hey, memories), without even thinking about it. To test your erectile dysfunction, loosely wrap a strip of stamps around your dick, and if the perforations are torn in the morning, it’s something in your head. I don’t know how you test this stuff now that stamps are all self-adhesive, but I always thought this little trick was pure genius, and I liked to think about all the dicks wrapped in stamps in beds across America.
Point being, if you can test your erectile dysfunction from the comfort of your own home, there’s certainly no point in going to the doctor just because your tonsils are so swollen that they’re practically touching, and you can barely see your throat hole, so tiny that it occurs to you that you might need your lady friend to thread a coffee stirrer through there and drip milkshake through it in order to get any sustenance. “What’s the doctor going to say about that?” I can hear my dad asking. What, she’s going to give you antibiotics that are just going to give you a yeast infection and then make you come back for follow-up appointments you don’t need when what you really need to do is stay home with some hot tea and some time? Save the entire health care system the cash, I can hear him say, and stay home.
But I’m a grown-up now, surrounded by pushy people who don’t think seeing a doctor is giving in to The Man but instead an important part of self-care, combined with the deep luxury of both decent health insurance and a primary care physician who is actually available for appointments. I went ahead and made my call, got a same-day appointment because miracles do happen, and just a few hours later was riding my bike over to Johns Hopkins Community Physicians at Wyman Park. I could hardly breathe, but yes, I rode my bike, because I make terrible decisions for myself when left on my own.
I checked in with security, got my wristband, and headed up to the clinic where I checked in on a computer, waited, got checked in by a human being, and was reminded that next time I should also check in on the clipboard, and then waited among the other snifflers and hackers to get called back for my turn. Health care’s so expensive partly because of the cost of all the checking in, the bureaucracy of everyone having their own private billing mechanisms. Universal health care wouldn’t just be awesome because then everyone would have health care, but also because we’d cut the bureaucracy—and the cost of it—by 90 percent. For now, though, I’ll consider myself among the luckiest of the lucky to just be able to check in.
The appointment itself was quick. It started like they all do—a weigh-in to confirm that yes, I’m still obese and a blood pressure check that, no matter how “good” the numbers are, never counts for much against the fact that I’m fat. Back in the old days, every health problem was attributed to my smoking, but now it’s always that I’m fat. I crossed my fingers that the doctor could focus today on the part where it was my tonsils that were way overweight. She came in, did a quick look and listen, and said in her very dry and emotionless way (which I love, by the way), “I have to admit those are a bit bigger than I was expecting.” I got a prescription for some antibiotics that she wasn’t entirely sure would help, a suggestion to stay home and rest, and a follow-up appointment. Dad was right—I could have just stayed home. If nothing else, though, I got confirmation that I was indeed sick, and that I did indeed need to rest. As I hung around the grocery-store pharmacy waiting for prescriptions with all the other midday sick folks, I thought about that part where I need a doctor to confirm what I know and feel in my own body, that I can barely trust myself with my own self, because that’s what the transfer of medical knowledge and authority from ourselves to the Physician Industrial Complex has meant. That might be the worst part of sick days these days.