March 10, 2006

The Age of Appointments

When my mother was in her last years – which we didn’t know were going to be her last years, but how could they have been much otherwise? – my brothers and I used to make fun of her for being obsessed with medical appointments, for treating them as social events. She had a podiatrist for her bunions, a neurologist for her balance problem, a retinologist for the little spots on her retina, a physical therapist for her range of motion, and an internist for most everything else-- plus the dentist and the endodontist, of course. The word “retinologist” especially tickled us: it seemed to express Mom’s touchingly provincial desire for sophistication, a product of her education in New York City’s public colleges when they were the way up for the children of immigrants (as I suppose, in fact, they still are). She didn’t just have an ophthalmologist, she had a retinologist! Her phone conversations to us were weighed down with details of which one she was going to see, and which ones were “very nice” or “lovely.” Days before an appointment, she would worry if she would get there on time, and often she’d clear her schedule, such as it was when living in a retirement complex, so she could be sure of getting there.

Well, now I’m starting to get a glimpse of what it might be like someday, or even closer than someday. In the first three days of this week, I had four appointments: first with my kids’ orthodontist, then with the doctor who prescribes the little pills I’ve started to take for my recently diagnosed, mild bipolar disorder – a short, sweet conversation, everything’s on track, he went down his list of questions just as a computerized doctor would have, or, for that matter, just as I would have on the basis of reading a home medical care manual -- then with a woman I talk to for forty-five minutes every week to help clear the brush on my path, and finally – the most troubling one – with a urologist.

I’d never been to a urologist before, but a couple of weeks ago I was lying awake at four in the morning, minding my own business, when I happened up a little nodule in a place I usually don’t examine much. My family doctor had me take an ultrasound, and while the nodule turned out to be a harmless cyst, the radiologist discovered a questionable area, a patch of fuzzy discontinuity, in another part of the forest, so to speak.

The waiting rooms of urologists, it turns out, have their own special culture. Gray-haired, paunchy men with heavy Texas accents kept getting up to tell the receptionist they were going to use the restroom. A young man wearing a mechanic’s blue jumper looked sorrowful while his perky wife, sitting next to him, kept explaining out loud that they were anxious and that he had to go urgently. An excessively made-up lady of about eighty, blue insurance card in hand, crossed herself, the card hitting all four points with a light click of plastic on wool. And I? I kept getting up and taking drinks of water from the fountain outside, because I had peed before arriving and hadn’t known they would want a sample.

The urologist was reassuring – he didn’t feel anything anomalous on physical examination – and I left happily, silently wishing everyone in the waiting room well, and pleased with myself for being younger than most of them.

It was a peek down a long corridor of time. I step gingerly over the threshold; I glance this way and that, looking to see who’s ahead of me and who’s just behind me in line.

I’m already booked for more appointments next week.