Mervyn Kaufman had high blood pressure, but only in the presence of his doctor.
I grew up in a household that worshiped doctors. My family regarded them as all-knowing gods who commanded not only respect, but absolute obeisance. Pronouncements from the family physician were considered gospel; my folks thought he could do no wrong.
They even forgave him when, sitting in my dad’s hospital room, our omniscient family practitioner sniffled as he confessed that his long-term inattention was perhaps to blame for my father’s colon cancer. It may or may not have been true, but my parents ignored the fact of it and clung to the apology.
“Isn’t he wonderful?” my mother exulted, even though her husband had just had fourteen inches of colon excised. “He’s so honest—and so emotional!” He was, but he was also arrogant and maybe more than a little bit negligent.
The first time I fired a physician, I did so quietly and with a twinge of guilt. For years, he had been treating me for a hypothyroid condition I have dealt with since childhood.
I was accustomed to annual thyroid checks (the procedure has changed markedly since those rather terrifying basal metabolism tests I’d endured as a youngster), but once a dosage of thyroid extract had been determined, this particular doctor lost interest in re-testing.
I knew I was beginning to feel increasingly hyper at one point; thus, I also knew that something had to change—namely, my doctor. The next man I was referred to requested a thyroid check soon after my first visit, then quickly halved my daily dosage. Within weeks, I felt markedly better.
When that doctor retired, I found another whom I liked very much, but I quickly developed a loathing for his office. The people behind the counter, which proved a rather ungracious barrier, were loud, frequently rude, and came off as uncaring.
If a patient approached or interrupted them—their chitchat seemed to take precedence over their purpose—they looked ever-so-put-upon. “Yessss?” one of them might say, looking up impatiently, displaying indifference through bored expressions.
Part of my so-called annual physical called for lab tests. During my first visit, I was shown to the lab, where the technician asked, “What’re you here for?” I was taken aback. I wanted to fake Pidgin English so I could convincingly say, “Me no speak English. Why not you tell me?” But I didn’t.
I suggested that the doctor was interested in my cholesterol, my PSA, and my thyroid output. Actually, there were other tests he would have wanted, but since I didn’t know what they were, I never had them.
I eventually determined that it was important to have lab work done at least a week before visiting my doctor, so he would have the results in front of him while examining me. By then, I knew he would never phone; he was much too busy. What he usually did was send me a copy of each lab report with marginal chicken-scratches I couldn’t decipher. It was better, I felt, to be facing him and forcing him to translate the lab findings, for better or worse.
On what would be my final visit, as I sat on the examination table, he said, “You’ll need to get your lab work done now.” I explained that it had been done eight days earlier. “It’s not here,” he said, leafing through my file. “You know, when you come to the office, you should tell the folks at the desk to dig out your lab report and put it in your folder so I’ll have it when I see you.”
I was speechless. I was not in a mind to argue with him, nor would I ever deign to order or organize his insolent staff. Instead, I made up my mind to find another doctor. I sent him a detailed letter, explaining why I’d felt a change was needed. No response.
I wasn’t surprised. The new man’s office staff was not particularly cordial, but they did look efficient, and the place seemed to run in a manner far superior to that of my previous doctor. At one point, I was referred to a specialist, a man who seemed rather crisp but knowledgeable—someone I felt I could put my trust in.
There was something about him, though.
At the end of each examination, he would direct me to put my clothes back on and meet him in his office, which would always be empty when I arrived. After a few minutes, he would enter—very slowly, as though measuring each step.
He would ceremoniously close the office door as if something highly secretive and weighted with dread was about to be dropped on me. He would move to his desk, sit rather grandly, open my file, take a deep breath, and only then look sternly across his desk.
I always expected the worst. Was it cancer, doctor? Have I had a stroke? A heart attack? Surely, what he was about to say would be every bit as solemn as these and all the other dire prognoses I imagined—but everything was routine.
My blood pressure remained a concern, however. Despite the prescribed medication I was dutifully taking, my blood pressure climbed with every visit—until this specialist suggested that perhaps my meds should be doubled.
I said I would think about it; what I thought was, “Why is my blood pressure 120/80 in every other doctor’s office but this one?”
I decided that I had grown to resent this man’s pomposity so much that my blood pressure rose whenever I had to see him.
“You gotta control your anger,” my wife kept saying. I did, of course. I kept it contained, but I just couldn’t will it away.
I decided to try an experiment: I found another specialist in the same field. He came highly recommended, so I had no reason to doubt his competence. He took my history; he listened to my breathing, and measured my heartbeat.
Then he took my blood pressure: 120/80. I’ve gone to him regularly every since. And now, each time I complete a visit, I experience extraordinary relief.
It’s neither love, nor deference, that I seek in a physician; it’s respect, no crap, and the ability to communicate.