Doldrums and Blackheads

There’s a certain age where you just don’t see doctors very often. A younger friend of mine, who was at the time around 24 years old, told me that his secret to avoiding trips to the doctor was to drink eight 8 oz glasses of water each day. First off, I think it had more to do with being 24 years old than anything else. When I was 24 I didn’t really even have a firm understanding that I could die, let alone thoughts of visiting a doctor. Any full-blown flu would only pale in comparison to an average University of Wisconsin – Madison hang over. Secondly, that old eight glasses of water tale has been proven to not necessarily be true. It looks as if by some oddity there’s water in our food and that counts toward water intake credits. So, I don’t think his super hydration was the reason for the fewer trips to the doctor. By the way, when did we become super hydrators? Why do we need to drink water at all times? Do we need a special water bottle at our work stations where we’re sitting idly? A lot of times when I’m thirsty for a drink of water, my body has this magical way of telling my brain to get a drink of water. I don’t have to keep pouring water in me like a Baby Alive – waiting for it to come out the other end every 45 minutes. It’s like some kind of constant H2o test to make sure there are no leaks (except the one at the end of the line).

So far we’ve been fortunate enough not to have to take our kids to the doctor for things other than check ups and some other minor repairs. Although, as a parent my job is to worry about them. We’re not as good at worrying as some parents, but we’ve had concerns. As a rule, there is more concern with the first child, and that concern lessens with additional children. As I write this there’s a chance that Iris, our youngest, may have a broken toe, but we’ll see how it looks in a day or so. When Lila was about 1-year-old she was throwing up all the time. My mom said that she was just “throw-upy”. I never heard of this ailment before, so I thought it might be good to get the doctor’s opinion. Now, I love our doctor to death, but in today’s world of suing and malpractice, it’s sometimes difficult to get a straight answer from a doctor. I told our doctor that my mom said that she had something called “throw-upy” and asked if this sounded right. The good doctor paused for a moment and said it was probably nothing more than she had a touch of the “throw-upy” but we should get x-rays to be safe. X-rays were followed by pumping chalk into the 1-year-old and turning her on a rotisserie to circulate said chalk. She was fine in the end. Minus the trauma from being spun like a pig on a bar-b-que. Could our doctor have passed on the x-rays and rotisserie? Not really if she wanted to play it safe – and when I say play it safe I mean make sure she doesn’t get sued. Could we have passed on the x-rays and rotisserie? Yes, but my wife believes in the bigger concepts of doctors knowing what’s best. Are you stark raving mad, man? Why would you not listen to a doctor. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not a hater of our fine western medicines. Sometimes we need to just say no to an x-ray.

A number of years ago at the ripe age of 35 my body began falling apart. First it was a cold and then a suspicious lump. I’ll talk about the cold first to put off as long as possible saying the word “lump” again. I really only feel comfortable when the word “lump” is found in a Dr. Seuss book. At least there it’ll rhyme with something fun. I can’t even handle “lumps” of sugar. My cold was dragging on and I was working at a place where I had insurance. I hadn’t been to a doctor in a while – not because of my water consumption – but, because I was young. That all changed at 35. This seemed like a responsible year. I decided to find a doctor and make that doctor mine. One of my criteria for finding a doctor would be that he (or she) would have a small practice and parking that was close to the building. I found such a doctor’s office in a small village that cozied up to Minneapolis. The village of St. Anthony Park has a quaint winding main street that hosts assorted businesses. One business was my new doctor. I made an appointment and showed up for my appointment. Immediately, I realized that this place was old school. The receptionist sat at a desk in front of a wall of file folders. These were patients private records just arms reach away. This was thirteen years ago, so by now I’m sure the privacy of those records has been sullied by throwing them on some less than human computer. The nurse, who looked to be close to retirement, came out and escorted me to a room. She flipped a green plastic flag up to indicate someone was in the room. I rather liked that.

A few minutes later the retirement age nurse opened the door and was followed in by a doctor that looked like he may already be retired – maybe stopping by to see how everyone was doing. I realized that they were mid squabble. Next I realized that she had probably been his nurse for the past thirty years. I know what you’re thinking – that’s an awful lot of realizing. I just realized that. She left mid squabble and I was left with the elderly doctor. I’ll just call him Doctor Old. Doctor Old looked me over like an owl looks over a branch before he perches on it. I didn’t think he was going to perch on me. But I didn’t know what to think of his slow examination. I asked him if he and the nurse had worked together a long time and he said, “Who? Who?”

“The nurse,” I said. “Yes, she’s the nurse,” he replied. I gave up on the conversation. He asked me what the problem was. I told him I’ve had a cold for a while and thought I should have it checked out. He asked me how old I was and I regaled him with my tale of being 35. “I’m 35,” I said. He then proceeded to tell me about how that’s when people start falling apart. About how, at 35, you start to go down hill. He said he thought I might have a case of the “Doldrums.” Later, I remember wondering if throw-upy would be in the same medical journals as the doldrums.

“You think I have a case of the doldrums?” I asked. He said yes and he’d seen it before. After all it’s February. There was some medical knowledge that I couldn’t walk away from. I was a little irritated. I just didn’t go to doctors for any old thing – especially the doldrums. I would prove to him that I have the potential for real medical problems. I told him how my father had prostate cancer, my grandfather died from prostate cancer, my uncle had it, my cousin had it – You see, cancer down between the legs runs in my family. So don’t tell me I have the doldrums. Some day I’m going to have cancer right between my legs. He listened to me rattle off my family cancer tree. Without missing a beat he asked if I’d ever had my prostate checked. Almost simultaneously he was putting on a glove. I knew the direction this was going. Things had gotten ugly. I came here for a cold, was told I had a case of the doldrums and now it looked like we were headed down the rectal road. I wasn’t at all prepared for this. He asked me if I’d ever had a rectal examination. I ducked and said I think this can be done with a blood test. He parried and jabbed replying that he doesn’t draw blood anymore at his practice. I’d have to go downtown and get blood drawn and feeling the prostate is still the first step. I blocked him and hesitated and looked like I was going through some kind of mental Rolodex. Hmmmm. Let me think. Rectal examination. Rectal examination. Rectal examination. I was only 35 years old. I don’t know if my ploy was fooling him to pretend that I could had lost track of whether or not I’d had a rectal examination. I finally said I didn’t think so. He had a glove on his hand and said he could do it now. It was like he was daring me. Oh, Yeah. Go ahead, I’m not afraid. I gave Doctor Old the green light. A minute later I was pronounced good. Now I had the doldrums. Thus ended my first medical emergency at the age of 35.

About 7 months later I found a lump under my arm. My first response to such an aberration is to prod and  poke it and see what’s what. Cynthia told me to stop and insisted that I should go see a doctor. I wasn’t sure this was the right choice. I didn’t want another bout with the doldrums. She said I should go to our local clinic and she made me an appointment. Ok. Ok. I’ll go to the doctor. They had an opening and I was in there the next morning. I waited patiently my turn to see the doctor. That’s where the word patient comes from, by the way. It’s Latin meaning “to wait for a doctor and read People Magazine”. Finally, it’s my turn. I tell my troubles to the nurse who does an interview for the doctor – who, apparently, is like a late night talk show host. I give my pre-interview so the doctor knows not to waste time and ask me the right questions. I secretly hope there will be an audience because I’ve prepared some funny remarks I feel may be lost on the doctor.

As I wait for the doctor alone I start to be more concerned about my lump. I’m not talking about being concerned that it’s something serious. I’m starting to think that it may not be very serious and I should have poked and prodded on my own some more, before Cynthia made me come in here.  Just then the doctor opens the door while I’m trying to look under my arm at the lump. I’m a little embarrassed – like I’m fixing my own sink when the plumber comes in. He’s an older gentleman. He’s not like Doctor Old. This doctor is older, but seems dignified. I think maybe he was in Viet Nam for some reason. He immediately seemed stoic and like he had some military background. He looked over the notes from the nurse. I immediately started to downplay the lump. He asked to look at it. He put on a very dignified pair of glasses that were in style. He obviously stayed current with the latest styles and trends – in a dignified manner, I’m sure. I raised my arm. He poked the lump. For a moment I thought I could have been a doctor. He prodded the lump with his gloved hand. I wondered if Cynthia would have let me continue my self-examination if I had been wearing a glove. Not one of those yellow fuzzy work gloves, but a plastic glove like the doctor’s. Before the doctor had come in the room I looked in a drawer that had a box of gloves. I would get a couple of gloves before I left.

The dignified doctor moved the lump between his thumb and forefinger. He applied a slight pressure. Without any kind of notice -Maybe a tap on the head or the words, “Here we go.” The doctor began to squeeze. He looked less dignified as he started to grit his teeth. He pinched my lump as hard as he could. My first thought was that this was the most radical cancer treatment I’d ever heard of. My next thought was, “Oh, my God, Cynthia made me come to the doctor’s office to get an out of control blackhead popped!” There was flooding embarrassment wrapped with solid joy that I would be able to tell this story to my friend, Jim. Wait. The doctor was still squeezing. He was squeezing because it was the only thing to do. But, I think he was squeezing possibly 20% harder than necessary because he had gone to medical school and memorized a lot of stuff. He had learned how to save people’s lives and possibly saved people’s lives in a war. He was an expert in some field and probably sat on a board or two. He was respected amongst his peers and loved every bit of his career. That is to say, loved his career right up to a moment before he had to diagnose the 35-year-old man with a blackhead under his arm. Take that you stupid, stupid man. Then he showed it to me. Astounding. I know it wasn’t his favorite medical moment, but I bet it was one of the most satisfying appointments he’s ever had. Diagnose problem. Solve problem. Doesn’t get any better than that.

I went home and reported to Cynthia the tale and how I’m done with the doctors. I told her that someday if we have kids, let’s try not to take them to the doctor for doldrums and blackheads. At this time we didn’t know what we would do if we encountered the medical condition of throw-upy, but like any good parents we  assumed we would have the child fully examined. She agreed and went back to her part-time job of trying to figure out what’s the matter with me.

Sadly Yours,

Jason Spafford

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