Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Dr. Practical


I've managed to avoid hospitals for fifty-five years. In particular, as long as I retain any voluntary muscle function, I’m never going to be sick enough to go to an emergency room. 

Fortunately, being surrounding by loving family means that if I really needed medical assistance, someone will take me to the ER as soon as I lose consciousness. Then the ER stops being an indefensibly profligate expense. 

But I’m also a good parent. I wouldn’t wait for one of my children to be unconscious before seeking medical attention. Of course, all three times I took children to the ER in Seattle, they were immediately admitted to the hospital.

Happily, our insurance now includes a "walk-in" clinic that’s open seven days a week. It's brought a sane equilibrium to healthcare in our family.

The Bellingham clinic is inconvenient enough to deter casual visits, even by notorious hypochondriacs like my daughter – no one wants to sit for a couple of hours in a waiting room surrounded by sniffling children. It’s ideal for those of us whose medical problems don’t involve gunshots or heart attacks, but still can’t wait till we can get an appointment with our regular physician. 

The first time I visited the walk-in clinic was a couple of years ago, when my daughter Eleanor “absolutely” needed an updated school sports physical exam “that day.” Since then Eleanor has been back for various actual medical needs. Each time we’ve seen the helpful and practical Dr. Julie Terry. 

Bellingham is a small town. It turns out my daughters go to middle school with Dr. Practical’s daughter.

In “Ungilding the Lily,” I observed that unlike practitioners of certain dubious fiction genres, a memoirist can't get away with describing too many implausible coincidences in a row. Numerous ruthless deletions are therefore necessary in order to avoid straining credulity, or exhausting readers’ patience.

Because this is an uncharacteristically short essay, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a couple of examples of the type of piled-on coincidences you regularly miss out on:

·     Both times we switched insurance in Bellingham, my kids were assigned to Dr. Terry as their default provider before connecting with our regular pediatrician. I still have insurance cards with her name on them.

·     On the way home from the clinic, Eleanor confessed that she’s actually been in their house with her classmates, and recognized Dr. Practical from her family pictures.

But I digress.

At my annual physical last year, my regular Bellingham physician Dr. Heuristic diagnosed me with age-related tinnitus, i.e. ringing in the ears. The ringing usually is not noticeable enough to bother me. Years ago a Seattle friend developed tinnitus and had to quit the chorus. I thought he was being a drama queen, but now I owe him an apology. 

During the “Hell Week” of tech and dress rehearsals with Vancouver Men's Chorus this month, my body became predictably run down. For the first time, the ringing in my ears was deafening. Even worse, the ringing resonated with the sound system at Performance Works. It felt like someone was holding a speaker next to my left ear. 

Each day it got louder. By the end of the concert Saturday night, the ringing in my ears was unbearable. I drove home to Bellingham, and first thing Sunday morning I showed up at the walk-in clinic. 

After the nurse checked my vital signs, Dr. Practical came in and introduced herself. I reminded her that she’d treated me before – when I came home from the Vancouver Men’s Chorus Retreat this spring with a huge boil next to my left nipple. It told her it now looks like a small-caliber bullet wound. She said “I remember you – and the chorus.”

She checked my orifices and concluded my sinuses were infected. My chronic allergies mean I’m used to getting occasional sinus infections. However, this year the congestion combined with tinnitus to make the ringing in my left ear excruciating. 

Dr. Practical prescribed a round of antibiotics. She also told me ordinary Sudafed would quickly relieve the pressure on my Eustachian tubes that was amplifying the ringing in my ear. Sure enough, by the time I got home from the pharmacy and the Bellingham Youth Pride parade, I could hear normally again. I also realized the ringing in my ears had been distracting me from the infection's nasty congestion and sore throat.

I'm still waiting for the antibiotics to kick in. But Dr. Practical assures me I’ll be ready to sing five more VMC concerts this week.

Mormons are terrible at moderation. That's another bug or feature of my heritage that I haven't escaped. 

One benefit of the plagues afflicting me over the last few years is that I’ve gotten much better at accepting assistance from others. But the old heuristics I used to rely on before seeking help have all failed me – rules like “Do I have a fever over 103 degrees?” “Have I lost a litre of blood yet?” and “Am I unconscious?”

Now I’m looking for more practical clues when something might be seriously wrong. So far, both my trips to the walk-in clinic have involved bacterial infections. Both needed to be treated with antibiotics. Both happened on weekends. Both occurred after spending time in Vancouver with the chorus. 


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