By Howard J. Bennett, MD
A few weeks ago, I was faced with a rather bracing question: Am I a good doctor? As I pondered this question, I became obsessed with its implications. If I am a good doctor, how good am I? Am I good enough, for example, that I would see myself if I got sick? And if I’m that good, wouldn’t it be difficult to get an appointment to see me?
Given my temperament, I knew I wouldn’t rest until I answered this question. So, armed with the resolve of Job, I set out to complete my quest.
The first person I called was my mother. I called my mother because at 68 she’s an experienced woman who has seen many doctors over the years. In fact, I remember that she often complained about doctors when I was growing up. She thought our family doc was a nice man, but I once overheard her say that he wouldn’t recognize a goiter if it invited him out to dinner.
My mom went to college, which was unusual for women of her generation. Her Ph.D. dissertation was on the medicine men of an obscure tribe in South America. This, I reasoned, also makes her an authority on medical care.
I picked up the phone and called my mom.
“Hello, this is Martha speaking.”
“Hi, Mom,” I said. Her voice sounded distant for some reason, though she perked up when she realized it was me on the phone.
“Hi sweetheart. How are you?”
“I’m fine, Mom,” I said. “I’m calling because I was wondering if you think I’m a good doctor?”
“Of course you are, dear. You’re a wonderful doctor. Just last year, your cousin Edna got rave reports from the patient she sent to you with the broken leg.”
“Mom, that’s your other child. Mary is the orthopedist. This is Jack calling.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, dear. It’s 2 a.m., so I’m a little groggy. But yes, I think you’re a wonderful doctor too.”
“But am I as good as Mary?”
“Jack, you’re 40 years old for heaven’s sake. Are you still holding onto the one mistake I made when you were growing up? For the millionth time, I’m sorry I told the maid that Mary was better at algebra than you were.”
“Okay, Mom, I forgive you. But tell me, what makes a good doctor?”
“You mean besides recognizing a patient with a goiter?”
“Yes, Mom, besides that.”
“Well, I don’t know. I guess a good doctor is someone who communicates well with his patients and provides good medical care. Unless you practice in certain parts of South America, in which case being a good doctor means applying pig urine to a patient’s entire skin surface until the Gods make him better.”
“So you think I’m a good doc?”
“Yes, Jack. Now why don’t you have a glass of warm milk and go back to bed? You do realize what time it is don’t you?”
“Oh, and by the way, if you talk to Mary tomorrow, be a dear and ask her to call in my refill of Synthroid.”
Well, that was a relief. My mom thinks I’m a good doctor, and she’s an authority on the subject. What a load off my mind.
Wait a minute! Martha is my mother. She suffered through twenty hours of excruciating labor to bring me into this world. She took care of me all those nights when I barfed on her designer gowns. She has to think I’m a good doctor! I don’t care if she had a Ph.D. in microbiology, she’d say I was a good doctor even if I was sued for misdiagnosing a case of chicken pox.
It was now obvious that my mom lied to me the way all moms lie to their children—especially when they want to get back to sleep in the middle of the night. So I was back to square one. I considered taking a sedative like the ones I prescribe for patients, but what if it didn’t work? Wouldn’t that prove that I was incapable of providing good medical care? I needed help, and I needed it fast!
As I tossed and turned, I noticed the rhythmic breathing of my lovely wife. How could I be so myopic? As I lay there worrying, I was sharing a bed with one of the most levelheaded people I know. And she’s a doctor to boot! So who better to assess my skills than the woman who knows me inside out?
Realizing that Abby held my future in her delicate hands was oddly comforting to me. But would she bear up to the responsibility I’d be asking of her? Or would she take the coward’s way out (like my mother) and say anything to get a few extra hours of sleep? I decided not to chance it. I’d wait until morning to pop the question.
I must have fallen asleep sometime after 4 a.m. because I woke up to the sound of mourning doves outside our bedroom window. Abby was in the shower when I sat up and turned on the news. The lead story was about a malpractice case in southern California. Some doctor mistakenly did a hysterectomy on a 28-year-old who was admitted for a fertility workup. Oh God, I thought, is there no end to this? I felt like I was trapped in a Greek tragedy.
Abby stepped out of the bathroom wearing a thigh-length teddy that I bought for her on our last anniversary. She got back into bed and put her arms around me.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked, gently nipping at my neck.
“Well, I’ve had better…”
“Would you like to fool around?” she purred.
Having sex was the last thing on my mind, but staring at Abby’s gorgeous lips and feeling her hips press against mine got the better of me. Besides, it might not be wise to douse her flames of passion right before I asked her the most important question of my life. So I submitted to her advances, opening my soul to her voracious appetite. Two hours later, we lay in bed, not talking, staring off into space.
“That was wonderful,” Abby said, stretching her legs across our king sized bed. “Do you want some breakfast?”
“In a few minutes,” I said. “I’ve been meaning to ask you a question.”
“Well, if you’re worried about our love making, don’t, because you were great.”
“Er, actually, I wasn’t. What I was wondering is whether you think I’m a good doctor?”
“Sure you are, Jack. You’re a terrific doctor.”
“But how do you know that? What makes me a good doctor?”
“I don’t know, babe. You seem pretty smart to me?”
“Thanks, but being smart doesn’t necessarily make you a good doctor.”
“You’re right,” she said. “But what about the specialists you refer to. Don’t they think you’re a good doc?”
“I think so, but you never know. Perhaps they’re nice to me because they want my referrals.”
“Hmm, I see what you mean,” Abby said, as she toyed with a lock of hair that wouldn’t stay in place.
“Wait a minute!” she said with a triumphant expression. “Didn’t you pass your board recertification last year? Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Maybe, but I’ve always been a good test taker.”
Abby could see that I was beyond help at this point. “I don’t know, Jack. If it’s bothering you this much maybe you should talk to one of your psych buddies. Either that or you can quit medicine and become my full-time lover.”
“Very funny,” I said. “But maybe you’re right. I’ll call Alan on Monday.”
All of a sudden, our 5-year-old daughter burst into the room crying.
“What’s wrong Emily?” I asked.
“My doll is broken.”
Sure enough, a brief exam revealed that Barbie was in critical condition. Emily held her anorexic body in one hand and her decapitated head in the other.
“Oh, no,” Abby said, throwing me a distressed look. “Have you ever tried to put the head back on one of these? It’s impossible.”
“Can you fix it daddy?” Emily asked.
I took the doll without thinking and pushed down on the head with all the force I could muster. The gods must have been with me because I felt the same “pop” that doctors long for when they’re trying to reduce a dislocated joint. Barbie was cured!
Emily stopped crying and looked at me with adoring eyes.
“Thank you daddy,” she said. “I knew you could do it. You’re a great doctor!”
Abby smiled and gave me a thumbs up. “Good job, mister. Do you still think you need a shrink?”
“Well,” I said, “not counting Barbie, I’ve got three women in my life. I guess they can’t all be wrong.”
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in Stitches, The Journal of Medical Humor April 2004.)
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