Right out of high school, I decided I wanted to be in the medical field. Phlebotomy seemed interesting enough even though it meant taking blood from squeamish patients. I wanted to make a difference, or make money or something in between so I applied for work at one of those emergency clinics. In all honesty, I had decided even at the tender age of seventeen to lead an interesting life. Being in the medical profession seemed interesting enough according to the hour dramas playing on television at the time. I think my parents were just encouraged I might meet a doctor.
So, I became a receptionist at the clinic that entailed smiling politely at patients, demanding their co-pays before treatment, taking their initial vitals and then filing their complicated insurance form that required knowledge of physics and astronomy. I was also required to wear white nurse pants and any form of colorful smock sure to hide any curve beneath it. I even had my own stethoscope.
My first day, I marched in, my pants starched enough to encourage chafing and a bright blue smock sure to bring out the blue of my eyes. I, cold dead hearted, was going to make a difference. Patients would leave my desk shaking their head in wonder at how pleasant their trip to the doctor had been. As I brought my first patient, a young girl there with her mother with possible flu back to the first exam room, I was drunk with my own capableness. At least I was until I stuck a thermometer into her mouth and the girl promptly projectile vomited down the front of my pretty blue smock and white nurse pants. Her neon orange upchuck dripped down into my new white nurse shoes as I stood in shock fighting the urge to return the favor.
As her mother offered apologies, I fled to the bathroom where one of the nurses threw a pair of scrubs my way that were two sizes too big. After a quick bath in the sink and wearing the scrubs, my shoes squishing water down the hallway, I remembered an important detail. I was very squeamish. In my life, there had been a couple of instances of my sister arriving home bloody, and both times, I fled the scene. There had been the hamster blood bath that left me breathing into a paper bag with my head between my legs. I should have probably taken that into consideration when I picked the medical profession.
Never one to quit, I hung in working twelve hour shifts and Sundays for two years. As a parasitic writer, the interesting lives of those who worked there and visited during times of illness and injury were enough to overcome my flight or fight instincts. There was a constant stream of patients in distress and moonlighting orthopedic doctors who were working in the clinics to pay for exorbitant malpractice costs. There were also three full time doctors who worked during the morning hours. One was old enough to be my great grandfather, one was young enough to be interesting but married, and then there was Wayne Newton.
We called him that because he looked like Wayne’s doppelganger, complete with orange tan and dyed black hair. Although married, he thought himself somewhat of a ladies man. His specialty was pap smears and he did more than any other doctor there did. As required by law, one of us had to stand in the room with him taking notes while he flirted with every vagina spread eagle before him. Pap smears were the one and only time we were not allowed to interrupt him when his wife called.
Every day became a parade of stitches, colds and pill seekers. The pill seekers we recognized right away. They knew exactly what was wrong with them and exactly what prescription would help. We were trained to take their pulse while they complained of pain. Fast pulse, meant probable pain, but if it never changed, then they were more than likely faking it. The pill seekers were sent to the emergency room or simply turned away without their drug of choice.
One day a woman came in seeking Oxycontin. She said it was the only thing that helped her severe back pain. While I was taking her temperature one of the doctors wandered in and told me I was needed at the front desk. I stepped outside to be informed the woman was wanted by the police for passing fake prescriptions. We had to keep her in the office while waiting for the police. Suddenly, a routine crackpot became heart racing interesting. It was decided to do an x-ray and when I informed her of such, she became fidgety and insisted she had many and just simply wanted her prescription to leave.
Fearing I would be the one responsible for her leaving, I did one of the things I had been trained to do in medicine. I lied. I nonchalantly informed her if she got the x-ray then the doctor would add refills to the prescription rather than having her come back for more tests. She acquiesced and within minutes, the police were on site and taking her out in handcuffs.
My favorite doctor was a teddy bear of a man who was even more squeamish than I. He was a resident orthopedic surgeon and had little or no bedside manner. If anything, he appeared to be frightened of the patients and would have to psyche himself up to enter the rooms. He was also the one who seemed to get every STD and yeast infection for miles. He finally stopped working in our office after a week that included a woman with a diaphragm stuck firmly in her vagina, a young girl with herpes and four penile smears to test for Chlamydia.
After a few months, I was still eager to go to work. One of the reasons was a bi-weekly patient with multiple personality disorder who came in specifically to see one of the doctors. Married, with children, it was obvious her psychological disorder was not being faked. Her entire demeanor changed depending on what personality she was that day. There was the slutty girl who wore tank tops even in winter and who came in for pregnancy and STD tests after a weekend of debauchery. There was the haughty older woman with a posh British accent who wore silk scarves and suffered from migraines and food allergies. On occasion, the patient’s husband would bring her in as the little girl who stuck foreign objects up her nose or cut herself with razor blades.
It was all very interesting and tragic, until the day she came in as a personality we had not seen before. She was bruised and scared, her hair hanging wet around her face. She called herself another name and claimed she was possessed by the devil. Upon examination, the doctor realized she had burned herself with cigarettes on her thighs and was psychotic. She was taken to the mental hospital by ambulance and we did not see her for another six months. When she returned, she was the little girl and her husband informed us she had been childlike for months now. The last we heard, she was hospitalized again after being beaten in an alley.
The people I encountered became fodder for my short stories and poetry. I became desensitized to their plight as I dissected it in my writing. I enjoyed my work, but not the toll it took on my ability to empathize. There is a certain detachment needed as you hold down yet another child for stitches or inform a wife her husband was more than likely cheating because she now suffered from herpes. Sometimes, you saw people on one of their worst days, and you had to let go what happened to them after.
It was not until I was sent to the emergency room to fill in for someone on maternity leave, did it begin to wear on me. For every patient with a foreign object shoved up their rectum, there was a gunshot or a car accident. I began to see every day life as something to survive and not to enjoy. The final straw came when I was eventually sent back to the clinic. After a string of car accidents and bloody deaths, I was ready for cough, colds, and women who had douched with Lysol.
A friend of my sister had come in with her mother who had the flu for a week. We took a chest x-ray and once it was developed, even untrained to read x-rays, I could see what the doctor was shaking his head over. There were tumors on her lungs, cancerous looking tumors. I turned to see this middle-aged woman who thought she was going to get a prescription for cough syrup, and instead she was facing lung cancer. We called her attending physician and he refused to interrupt his dinner to come in. I thought of how heartless it was when he had been treating this woman for years.
I stood outside the room while the moonlighting doctor, trained in setting broken bones, was stumbling over his words as he advised her to go immediately to the emergency room. She asked time and time again if it was pneumonia and finally he said, I see something on your x-rays and I think it needs further testing. She walked out of the room, all the blood drained from her face and we called her husband to take her to the emergency room. The next morning, I turned in my two weeks notice.
What I learned is there is a certain detachment required for seeing the worst of what life has to offer. I have great admiration for doctors and nurses who can treat injury and disease every day and function in their own lives. I have had surgery, have been to the hospital for injury, have taken my daughter to the hospital, and every time I feel the same emotion. There are worse things to happen to each of us, and it really is about setting aside the fears and living life to its fullest.
I never dated a doctor during my time there, but I did learn life lessons. Never douche with Lysol, never stick objects into your rectum that will be the subject of ridicule when you are in the emergency room to have it removed. Trust me, your x-ray will be on the wall in the break room. Always wear your seat belt. Never cut a bagel toward you. If you have a good vein for giving blood, please tell the technician before she sticks your other arm three times. Do not dwell on all the bad things that can happen to you, your angst does not prevent them for happening. Laugh as often as you can, because it’s been said before. It really is the best medicine.