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A Doctor a Day : 'My Doctors Keep Dying on Me, or Going Away, or Retiring, or Becoming Otherwise Unavailable'

March 02, 1986|JACK SMITH

I am not a hypochondriac, but as I grow older, I become more susceptible to intimations of mortality, and to fortify myself as long as possible against its inevitable due date, I keep trying to collect a medical team.

I had, at one time, an internist, a dermatologist, a periodontist, a cardiologist, an ophthalmologist, a urologist and an ear, nose and throat man.

I have found each of these necessary to keep the parts working until, like the one-horse shay, everything wears out simultaneously.

The trouble with this plan is that doctors are not (as we tend to think of them) immune to physical and psychological breakdowns themselves. Consequently, my doctors keep dying on me, or going away, or retiring, or becoming otherwise unavailable.

To begin with, the captain of my team, so to speak, was the eminent Dr. Edgar F. Mauer, a neighbor of ours on Mt. Washington and my personal physician for more than 30 years. I used to refer to Dr. Mauer as Dr. Reap, but now that he has retired, I see no reason for shielding him any longer from public knowledge of his idiosyncrasies.

Dr. Mauer was widely respected in the profession as a diagnostician. I remember a heroic diagnosis he made once of an ailment of mine. I had a terrible pain in my neck and had gone to an orthopedist, who told me I had a spinal-disk injury and put me in a sort of canvas noose from which I was to hang for half an hour twice a day. It went around my head and under my chin and was suspended in a doorway. When my wife came home and for the first time saw me hanging in the kitchen doorway, she shrieked.

Since hanging in suspension did nothing to relieve the pain, I went to Dr. Mauer. He asked me dozens of questions and seemed to be stumped until I added, as an afterthought, that it hurt in the front.

"In the front ! " he exclaimed. "Why didn't you say so? I thought it hurt in the back ."

Dr. Mauer called in a colleague and told him my symptoms. "Remember the case we had like this?" he asked.

His colleague nodded. "Thyroiditis."

"You remember what the treatment was?"

"Aspirin," his colleague said.

I believe that may have been the only time in medical history that a distinguished physician, in consultation with a colleague, recommended aspirin as a specific for a serious ailment.

I was saved.

Since Dr. Mauer retired, to sit up in his aerie on top of the hill reading Mencken, Sassoon, Norman Douglas and Max Beerbohm, I have found another general practitioner, a pupil of Dr. Mauer's, whom I like and trust.

But my dermatologist retired because he could no longer cope with the paper work demanded in modern medical practice.

My ophthalmologist retired just the other day to write his memoirs.

My urologist retired, and my ear, nose and throat man is already the dean in his field and may retire any day.

Let me tell you about my periodontists. The first one died suddenly of a heart attack in his 50s. He had been a nut on eliminating sweets and alcohol. As a result of his preaching, I have rarely eaten sweets ever since.

When he died, I found a periodontist who did good work, but he hated The Times and never failed to vilify it when he had me in his chair. I didn't mind his not liking The Times, but I couldn't stand being harangued about it when he had me down with my mouth open and full of cotton wadding.

I found a younger periodontist who did not seem to be enraged by The Times. I found out that he read no newspapers at all.

"I get all the news I need listening to my car radio on the way to work," he said.

I drifted away. I could not stand to have my teeth worked on by a man who didn't read a newspaper at all.

I found another man who seemed ideal. He was a tough old bird, about my age, who had been a dentist with the 8th Air Force in World War II. Then he took a round-the-world tour, found out he liked the Philippines, and stayed there to open up a clinic.

My next periodontist was a relatively young man, in his 40s. He was an artist. The best I'd ever found. I told him about my doctors leaving me.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll outlive you."

Then he fell from a ladder in his basement at home and suffered a severe leg injury that forced him into early retirement.

I am now going to a very young man who seems competent and amiable; I wish him good health.

And I pray for my cardiologist.

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