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Contagious!

Going to the doctor for the first time in 5 years.

Yesterday I could not swallow more than 5 or 6 times. After each swallow I gave a muffled whimper of pain, mmmunh! In the middle of the day I went out to buy some broth, but after three blocks of cheerful ambulation, the sickness caught up with me and I had to lean against a brick wall, eyes suddently abrim with pathetic fever-tears.

I came home, crawled into my messy bed, pulled the pillows close, and spent an hour thinking, “if my throat closed up, and I suffocated, when would my body would be discovered?” I became a likely protagonist in the classic New York story, which ends, “then the neighbors noticed an awful smell.”

I'm not farfetching: my client work is on an open schedule; my parents don't expect me to return phone calls; my neighbor is away until mid-January; my girlfriend stopped calling back weeks ago; and in general, my friends have known me to be distant, nonresponsive, and inaccessible for long stretches, especially during the holidays. If I vanished from public intercourse - phone, email, visiting - people would assume I wanted “space,” not that I was rigid on the floor, mouth open, rats chewing into my eyeballs to get to my rich, fatty brain.

I lay alone in bed, and thought, “if I don't do something, years from now, Emergency Medical Technicians, between shots of morphine and games of ambulance chicken, will tell each other about dropping my rigid body down the stairs.” The only alternative was to see a doctor.

I last saw a doctor in Philadelphia, in 1995, right out of college, looking for work. Something - a sea spider or tongue worm or symphilid or squirrel - bit me, which made one side of my face swell to twice its normal size, and kept me from opening my right eye. For a few days I enjoyed this - my face is so dull, while my new monster-face was fun in the mirror and felt like sponge cake - but I knew that, unless I wanted a career ringing cathedral bells, and despite the various anti-discrimination clauses in the hiring code, potential employers would show prejudice against a big man with a deformed head. I went to a waiting room, stood on the scale, talked with the doctor, took a run of medicine, my head shrank back to its regular massive size, and that was the last time I needed anything more than chicken soup or a good leeching.

Between 1995 and today, I've gone to the hospital several times, but only to witness the pain of others, as they recovered from surgery or headed into death. Somewhere between my 10th or 11th visit to a bedside, I decided that I no longer wanted anything to do with medicine - allopathic, osteopathic, homeopathic, or shamanistic. Deep inside of myself, around where my duodenom is, I knew, as one might, say, know that angels gave Joseph Smith two golden tablets with The Book of Mormon inscribed, that if I went to the doctor I would be told, very quickly, that I was dying.

I sign in; I sit in a cheap chair reading Redbook; I hear my name called; I am poked and prodded; I feel the prick when a nurse removes a small quantity of blood. A week later, coming home from some long walk, I hit the button on my answering machine, and hear the Brooklyn accent of a nurse, asking me to come in for further tests.

This time, I do not have to fill out forms or wait. The nurse guides me to a consultation room, and touches my shoulder. She says, “the doctor will be right in.” Seconds later, he actually is.

“Paul,” he says, and then begins to weep. For several minutes he can't gain control. He says, “What we found in the blood, it's, I don't know....Even your knees! Even your navel! It spread to your teeth. And inoperable. It's got us all horrified. I asked my colleagues what to do, and they just stared in blank horror. And...not only that...somehow...there's a full-sized radial microphone in your colon.”

I hand him a Kleenex and tell him it'll be okay. We hold each other in manly embrace. I take a deep breath, and say, “The microphone, I was part of an arts organization, we were doing an experimental radio show -”

“It's not important now. Paul, you...you have only 40 minutes left.”

“To live?”

“I'm sorry.”

“Can I use your phone?”

“Yes, as long as it's not long distance.”

This time, I do not have to fill out forms or wait. The nurse guides me to a consultation room, and touches my shoulder. She says, “the doctor will be right in.” Seconds later, he actually is.

“Paul,” he says, and then begins to weep. For several minutes he can't gain control. He says, “What we found in the blood, it's, I don't know....Even your knees! Even your navel! It spread to your teeth. And inoperable. It's got us all horrified. I asked my colleagues what to do, and they just stared in blank horror. And...not only that...somehow...there's a full-sized radial microphone in your colon.”

I hand him a Kleenex and tell him it'll be okay. We hold each other in manly embrace. I take a deep breath, and say, “The microphone, I was part of an arts organization, we were doing an experimental radio show -”

“It's not important now. Paul, you...you have only 40 minutes left.”

“To live?”

“I'm sorry.”

“Can I use your phone?”

“Yes, as long as it's not long distance.”

I didn't want to call the doctor; it seemed better to hope my tonsils would heal, or that I would pass quickly and quietly into the Chthonian realm, until this morning. This morning, I peered into my mouth in the mirror, and saw that my throat had been removed and replaced with a throat designed by Frank Gehry. All of my fears faded. My mother stood up inside my head, pounded the inside of my skull with a hammer, and screamed, “would you please go to the doctor, you ignorant clown?” I went calmly to the phone and squeaked my request for an appointment.

The woman asked, “What insurance do you have, honey?”

“I have, uh, Aetna.”

She was quiet for a long moment. “Motherfucking Mary mother of God. Are you sure, Aetna?”

When she said the word “Aetna”, three other women near her phone cried out, “shit!”

“Yes, I asked for Dr. B----- to be my primary care doctor.”

“And right before Christmas.”

I felt awful. “I'm so sorry. It's the only HMO I can afford.”

“Aetna. Rather have my fingers smashed with a rock.”

Despite Aetna, they fit me in at noon. It's now 11:10 am, time for me to put on shoes, pants, and shirt, and go. I've showered, scrubbed with Dr. Bronner's soap, and just put on new underwear with a fresh-bleached undershirt, because a doctor, like a Methodist youth pastor, can ask you to be naked, and then gently squeeze your testicles, at any time. I'm saving this file and putting on my coat, and soon - it depends on how long the line is - someone will put a stick in my mouth and tell me I'm dying.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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