Ever seen a goiter?
Unless you’re a medical professional, you probably never have.
I have, and it scared the hell out of me.
It was about 25 years ago and I was a volunteer at a newly opened HIV unit at a major hospital.
How I ended up there is a long story, having less to do with sincere motives than a desire to hit on nurses.
The nurses were too busy to be hit on, but I stuck around anyway and did a two-year stint, four hours a week.
This was back when AIDS had been in the public eye for less than a decade, and for various reasons hospitals were slow to recognize what was going on.
Since our unit was the newest and nicest in the hospital, sometimes we would get VIP patients in one of the rooms.
When I showed up for my shift one Thursday morning, the volunteer coordinator let me know that we had one such VIP in one of our rooms.
“He’s a super-wealthy business guy,” I was told. “He has a really big goiter. Don’t let that throw you.”
I went into the guy’s room, and even as he lay glowering in his hospital bed, his very aura announced wealth and power.
He looked like Daddy Warbucks, with the huge bald head and, on his shoulder, a goiter – a growth the size of a grapefruit.
I forced myself to make eye contact. I didn’t want to look at that thing.
He stared at me and studied me in my real volunteer outfit – the polyester smock with my little badge, the requisite white jeans and tennis shoes.
“How much do they pay you to do this?” he demanded, his tone imperious.
I was around 32, trying to make it as a writer, and barely had a penny to my name.
“I’m a volunteer,” I explained. “They don’t pay you anything.”
He looked me up and down one more time with that searching and powerful gaze, and I felt as though I was being not only X-rayed but also reduced to absolutely nothing.
“I never do anything I don’t get paid for,” he told me disdainfully.
I didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I said. I probably just made some small talk with him, and went to go find another patient to talk to.
Later that day, reflecting on the situation, I thought about how small I had allowed him to make me feel.
He never did anything unless he made money at it.
On the other hand, or more specifically on his shoulder, he had a huge goiter.
I’m not suggesting that working for money gives you a goiter.
It’s possible that dedicating your life to the getting of money, and basing your entire ego concept around the fact that you have it, can in fact get you a goiter.
As the expression goes, we trade our health for wealth, and then we have to trade our wealth for health.
I don’t know how this man made his money, I don’t know how he got his goiter, I don’t know how or if it went away, and I don’t know if he survived.
Frankly, I don’t care.
I just reflect on that experience a lot.
I don’t want to do anything that gets me a goiter.
I don’t want to look at anybody in such a way that that person feels like a big, fat zero.
Above all, I don’t want to be a patient, VIP or otherwise, in a hospital.
I want to live my life, run my business, hang around with my family, go to my kids’ Little League games and ballet recitals, work out, and so on.
Would I make more money if I skimped on some of those things?
Would I get in goiter territory if I did?
But I’ll take being the guy in the polyester smock with a volunteer badge and the mandatory white jeans and tennis shoes over being Daddy Warbucks in a hospital bed any day.
And I’ll bet you feel the same way.
Photo: Getty Images