Sara Kirschenbaum
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The First Lost and Found Piece In The Series

Posted Saturday, Jul 10th, 2010 at 11:02pm

A Hypochondriac’s Dream

I practically lived at the camp infirmary. The camp nurse got so tired of me that when my medical moment finally arrived and I broke my toe, she didn’t believe it. Only its knuckle – misshapen to this day - exonerates me.

I didn’t really have an unrealistic understanding of how sick I was. I just wanted the attention.

At eight-years-old my parents had shipped me off to Maine for two months so they could concentrate on their artwork and spend more time in their studios. The nurse was the only one who would touch me – whatever limb it was that was hurting - and look into my eyes, and ask me questions. At night I would wander across the wide field that was the center of camp gatherings, holding my toothbrush, rinse glass, slimy soap box, and smelly washcloth, and stare up at the star-rushed sky that seemed so far away it made me feel more adrift.

I have always liked a doctor’s touch. My pediatrician was Dr. Franklin, a tall kind man with bushy gray eyebrows. During my pediatric exams I enjoyed the clean gentle hands held the stethoscope at mysteriously key places on my back, listening for subtle clues as to how I was doing. I liked when I would sit on the examining table and the doctor would look straight at me with his routinely caring eyes and talk to me. I could feel traces of the raw compassion that had driven him to apply to medical school in the first place.

I even remember my first “internal” exam with Dr. Franklin, with a kind of tenderness. I was twelve years old and at first I felt deeply embarrassed when he told my mother with a momentous tone that it was time for me to have my first pelvic exam. At the time I was basically opposed to anything to do with puberty. (I was quite busy trying to will my hips and breasts to stay small.) But then my mother was sent out of the examining room and he questioned me about matters that my parents had only stiffly ventured. I felt a strange sense of power with my mother vanquished and Dr. Franklin so ready to hear my concerns, perhaps even ones that would implicate my parents. And when it came time for him to do the exam “down there” I was a little shocked that it could be done so blandly, so matter-of-fact. There were no giggles, no shame, no ulterior motives. Its innocence was calming.

I still find doctors singularly innocent. And the one greasy OBGYN who toggled my clitoris like an on/off switch is still overwhelmingly outweighed by the legions who met my body with utopian kindness. There have been ultrasound technicians, phlebotomists, x-ray technicians and internists. They address me with presumed respect and touch me cleanly.

I drive past the hospital to the medical school. I am reporting for work as a pretend patient. I will be testing first year medical school students in their ability to care for me. This is just a temporary job – one afternoon - and this is the first time I have done it. The old medical school building embodies tradition with its tall columns and stone snakes curving around rods of Asclepius. When I find the testing area I see a series of classrooms, each with a corner made up to look like an examining room. It looks like fun to me. There are all sorts of fake patients milling around: authentically elderly people, mothers with newborn babies, and teenagers. One woman and I are to be battered women. The medical students will have three minutes to read our pretend charts and then five minutes to treat us. The Director of Education is there and she interrupts my complimentary lunch to put make-up on me. She begins giving me a whopper black eye and several bruises while I consume my complimentary root beer and roast beef sandwich. She puts a huge bandage over most of my wound just letting the outer purple and red show. The second battered woman comes next and gets, I think, a tidier black eye than mine. We are to work in different rooms and each test twelve groups of first year medical students, four to a group. A licensed social worker will work with each of us, observing and grading the students. The mock patients, including myself, will be grading them as well.

In order to get the two of us battered women, inspired for our roles, the Director of Education jumps onto the examining table and starts sniffling and hemming and hawing about her injuries. “You have to put yourself into it!” she says, momentarily stepping out of character. A real physician in the room demonstrates what the medical students are supposed to do, gently confronting her about how she got hurt and coaxing her to get help. The Director of Education is stubborn though and curls up and puts up a fight. Soon a booming voice comes over the intercom telling the first group of students that they have three minutes to read the charts. They shuffle in the room and on the other side of the curtain that divides us, read my chart.

I can hear the four students whispering frantically between themselves. Myself, I’m getting into my role, touching my bandage gently as if I’m swollen and tender. I run over the details: I’m supposed to say I fell down the stairs… I’m supposed to blame myself for being clumsy. Soon the authoritative voice over the intercom says, “Clinical sessions begin now.”

The curtain is pulled back and a young handsome Asian man in a lab coat steps forward with a concerned look on his face. The three other students settle into chairs to watch. “Mrs. Miller, I have been looking over your chart and I see a few things that concern me. It seems this is you fifth trip to the emergency room in two years…”

I am now Mrs. Miller and I half believe that I am just a klutz. “I am so clumsy!” I say. The concerned doctor in the white lab coat keeps at me, saying that my injury is not consistent with a fall down the stairs. I want to get out of here and just get home with some Tylenol. “Mrs. Miller,” he hammers, “Is someone hurting you at home? If so, we can help you. We can help you to find a safe place for you and your children. Are the children safe? Has your husband ever hit your children?” The medical student is hitting all the right points. I say, “If only I kept the house cleaner, he just hates it when he comes home and everything is a mess. It is so chaotic with the kids and everything.” The student nearly jumps out of his chair, “There is nothing you could do to deserve being hurt! No one deserves to be hurt! Have you ever considered leaving? This is a very serious injury. What might happen next time?! There are safe places you could go.” The intercom interrupts us, and the young student smiles, embarrassed perhaps at his own sincerity. “The Clinical session is now over.”

The three students who did not play the role of doctor now have three minutes to add anything that was forgotten. One smarty-pants reels off an exhaustive list of points that could have been made including questioning whether there is a firearm in the home. When it comes time for me to give my feedback I validate “my doctor” for being so persistent but also add that no one questioned whether I felt safe to go home tonight. Now who is the smarty pants? This is going to be fun.

The afternoon stretches on, a hypochondriac’s dream. Group after group shuffles in, so concerned about my purple bruise, desperate to help me see the light, to see how good and innocent I am. Some of my doctors hold my hand. Some scoot their chairs closer to me. Some give me little cards with numbers of battered women shelters. As first year students, their compassion is fresh, untested. In the last group, a woman squeezes my hand, looks deep into my eyes and tells me it is not my fault. She repeats it over and over like a mantra: not your fault, not your fault." I look back at her and see she is starting to cry with water pooling in her eyelids. “You are good,” she tells me, holding my hand tenderly in both of hers, “You are good and you are not alone. I am here with you.”

The loudspeaker interrupts: “The final Clinical session is now over.”

But it’s okay. Hypochondriac, I am cured.


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