Saying My Prayers
I saw Dr. H Monday. Dr. Z apparently completed his studies. He was not present. Last year’s junior doctor whose name I never discovered greeted me (I’m going to call her Dr. Y until I can get a good look at her ID card) and took me back to the exam room. She reviewed my CT scan results with me, checked my lungs, and examined my healed incision. She verified that I had enough prescription refills to keep me going until October. My appointments will now be spaced out over three months. She asked me how I was feeling and made notes. I had her undivided attention.
Dr. H came by at the end of the appointment, followed closely by a young man in a white coat. I educate young lawyers so did not think he looked too young to practice medicine. I said, “Hello doctors.” The young man looked at me and smiled tentatively. His black and neon green backpack hung on the back of the examining room door. I know it was his because I first wondered if a patient had left it. Dr. Y looked at it and smiled. “It belongs to my new colleague.” I wondered if all professions had “trappings” that were being reconsidered in modern times. If doctors have exchanged little black bags for backpacks, what have lawyers adopted in place of leather briefcases? I no longer have a conventional leather briefcase. I have rolling carts in various sizes and a Tumi leather backpack that cost me several hundred dollars in wealthier times. Maybe we’re all becoming pack animals!
I recall once carrying a lovely calf skin briefcase engraved with gold letters that read Arnold & Porter. I received it my first day as an associate at the firm. I used it to carry my research materials and case files when my office was in one downtown office building and the partners for whom I worked were in another. I recall joking that carrying the briefcase all day long spared me the experience of being asked to go get a partner coffee. In those days there were plenty of female associates but few female partners. I did go fetch a few cups of coffee in my time. I did it with an ironic smile.
Dr. H commands respect without any trappings. She came in, asked me how I was feeling, and listened intently to my report. Her husband has cancer. That must be the worst experience an oncologist can manage. You spend your life treating cancer and your spouse succumbs to it. Her husband, like me, has experienced severe burns to the bladder during radiation. She left the room to call him to ask for the name of an over-the-counter medication that has given him some relief from bladder pain. When she returned she handed me a prescription for Cystex. It is ordinarily used by persons suffering from urinary tract infections. The pills contain a high dose of cranberry with something to ease pain. It is intended to soothe until a person can see a physician and obtain an antibiotic. She told me to take it to a Walgreens as the hospital does not carry it.
I like this doctor. I have several times seen her and been told to suck it up–pain, bleeding, burns, weakness. Nevertheless, I am comforted by the fact that she let me decide whether to go nuclear or cross my fingers when faced with the unknown condition of my untested lymph nodes, she gave me her cell phone number when things started to get grim during my treatments for cancer, and she has offered me the latest in care offered to no less than her husband.
I hope that she can continue to treat me. When it came time to arrange my next appointment I learned that she only has clinic hours on Monday mornings. I will be teaching Monday mornings this fall. I had no idea that she met patients on no other days of the week. I would have moved my class schedule had I known this. But it is too late to do that now. Students already have signed up for the class. If my appointments will now be spaced at least three months apart, then it will only be the one Monday when there will be a conflict. I discussed the matter with the receptionist. I will be teaching my Monday class at the law school. I have been told that I cannot miss any classes. That was a condition to my being offered the opportunity to teach Transactional Drafting. I was not offered the class all last year. Before I had cancer I would have considered asking my students to reschedule class for later that week. I would have felt bad about it, but I would have asked them to accommodate this one event as it is critical to my care. No longer. As I stood there I was afraid that seeing my doctor might cost me my job. I thought, maybe that’s me doing my best to stay professional. What did I read recently about professionalism? “Being a professional is doing the things you love to do on the days you don’t feel like doing them (David Halberstam, quoting Julius Erving).” David Halberstam, Everything They Had: Sports Writing from David Halberstam. Even as I worried that it would be a mistake to miss an appointment, I worried more about how my supervisors would react.
I told the receptionist that I would have to miss an October appointment. She asked me why. I told her briefly and she closed her eyes and sighed. She asked, “Is it a catholic institution?” I nodded. She told me that she was the victim of racial discrimination when she worked for such an organization a number of years ago. It was strange because I really was not looking for this connection. I anticipated that the system would let me slip through the cracks. I was headed next to the pharmacy that refills prescriptions for county patients. You can’t drop off or pick up a prescription on a weekend at the hospital. It is only open Mondays-Fridays 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m. I’ve wondered before how people manage to hold down jobs and still receive care and have figured out that they adapt or go without care. So I was resigned to missing care so as not to lose my job. But the receptionist was not prepared to let me do that. She studied her computer screen and scheduled me for an 8:15 a.m. appointment. She told me to arrive at 7 a.m. and check in as soon as the clinic opened. She told me to ask for the receptionist who had originally greeted me that morning. “Tell her about your employer,” she told me. “She’ll make sure you get in first. Tell the nurse your story when she takes your vitals. She’ll help you, too. That way maybe you can make it on time to your 10 a.m. class.” I thanked her for her advice. I wondered, not for the first time, whether or not someone “upstairs” was looking out for me, guiding me through the difficult path that I have been walking.
I headed next toward the Fantus Clinic, located in another building, where I drew a number and waited my turn to pick up my medicines for the next sixty days. As I leaned against a pillar waiting for someone to call B214 I tried to remember the last time I felt safe. It has not been for a long time. I have felt loved. I have felt cared for. I have felt pretty good. But I have not felt safe. I have worried that I might die. I have worried that I might not recover from cancer treatment. I have worried about my job. I have worried about medical bills. I have worried about my reputation. I have worried about cancer returning. I am not prone to worry about things. I have always had a strong belief in the potential for things to work out even when they don’t. As I stood there thinking about the receptionist I decided to stop being afraid. I think things will work out even if I do work at a place that might terminate me for seeing my doctor to ensure that cancer has not returned. If I keep on thinking that way maybe things will work out. And, if they don’t, well, maybe there are things that have to be accepted no matter how difficult they will be to bear. Haven’t I already met many wonderful people who have had to accept grim medical situations? Haven’t I been a witness to at least one failed effort to fight cancer?
Professionalism isn’t education. It isn’t a degree. It isn’t title. It isn’t experience. It isn’t income. It isn’t a calf skin briefcase or a black bag. It isn’t something you acquire. As Julius Erving said, it is how you do your job. Dr. H is a professional. Her two doctors in training are professional. The oncology clinic’s receptionists are professional. It may be the county hospital and many of the patients may be without insurance or financial resources, but the hospital is a teaching institution and it is teaching people to be professionals. I am grateful for the care I have received there. Over at the law school, I will handle my situation as professionally as I can and hope for the best. Maybe the only way to maintain professionalism is to continue to demonstrate it. Joyce Meyer has been quoted as saying, “Courage is fear that has said its prayers and decided to go forward anyway.” Joyce Meyer, I Dare You: Embrace Life with Passion. I’m saying my prayers that the next time I need my employer’s support to secure my continued good health that the school will not let me down.