I drive past my HMO's "increase your laugh expectancy" bulletin board. I swear and stare down at chaotic pages of doctors' reports, which teeter across the hand brake of my car. As I jerk my head back up to the freeway in front of me, I recite phrases from the reports aloud. I give myself extra points if I correctly match the doctor to the phrase. This is my pre-appointment prep.
Thirty minutes later, I criss-cross the patient parking lot while I clip in my fake pearl earrings. Today, I meet a new doctor, and I want her to know she's dealing with a professional patient who needs and respects her. And who will do just about anything to woo her.
After more than six years of, "This young woman presents with ... rare ... unusual ... fascinating," I have seen at least a dozen doctors in hospitals and medical offices around the world. Doctors who helped send my ovarian cancer into remission, and others who now try to unravel why my pre-cancer health has not been restored.
Wanting to be that special patient who crowds the doctor's thoughts, I engage in everything from mild flirtation to outrageous baking. Then I pit doctor against doctor, hoping to appeal to their competitive streak. I am also not below addressing them by title, in every sentence, nor branding my collection of symptoms a "House" case, which is theirs to famously crack.
Below are the top five things I know about doctors:
1. The calmer the doctor, and the closer she sits, the worse the news. Recovering from surgery for a burst cyst, I sat in my hospital bed and giddily studied the Irish newspaper ad for "Sunway Travel! Canary Islands - 7 nights, self-catering! Sale starts today!!" when my doctor quietly walked in, put her clipboard down and pulled up a chair. Until then, she had been a hurricane of manila files and beeps, talking to me with one foot in the hallway and one in my room. As a result, her newfound attention was flattering. Maybe my efforts at good hospital cheer were paying off? Maybe she wanted to chat about the new Ian McEwan novel she spotted earlier next to my bedside? And maybe, the best possible scenario, she was about to grant my request to be released early? But that winter's day, sitting less than 36 inches across from me, she told me I had ovarian cancer. Almost two years later, when another busy doctor walked into my narrow, grey room, sat by my side, and acted as if he had all the time in the world, I knew instantly: "I'm screwed."
2. Never use the verb "google." Google a new medical term. Pop a Xanax. Write the information on a flashcard. (Repeat.) In the first few weeks of my diagnosis, this was my night's work when everyone else had gone to bed. So by the time my second meeting with my oncologist rolled around, I didn't feel too poorly prepared, but my jaw was becoming increasingly locked and I could feel my heart beating in my head. When the doctor walked into the examination room, we exchanged handshakes, short smiles and lamentations about the rain. Then I said: "When I googled clear cell carcinomas on www.cancercures.com the other night ..." And he heard, "www.my-doctor-don't-know-s**t.com." The genial mood was ruined. Today, I still google; I just don't cop to it in front of the boss.
3. Swap the 'patient as warrior' routine for a little vulnerability. Losing consciousness while dressed in combat trousers -- five pockets and eight zippers per leg -- the nurses wheeled me out of the chemo ward and into a side room. They wanted the doctor to see me. And I wanted him to see my warrior spirit. Attempting to smile with eyes shut, I led him to the conclusion I was tough enough. He smiled back, walked away and I was left with nothing to stop my body's freefall. No new plan of attack. No new drugs. No new words of encouragement. I never made this mistake again. Months later, when my body was failing, I didn't act tough, but I also didn't act on my desperate desire to handcuff myself to the doctor either. Instead, I held my hands together over my peach velour sweatpants and asked for his help.
4. Silence the note taker. Early on, I noticed that some doctors weren't so thrilled to have to answer additional questions from my note taker (read: my mom), as well as me. Sure, there was the one doctor who enjoyed an audience, but in my experience, most prefer a more intimate, one-to-one conversation. As a result, I now ask my mom to give me her questions in advance so she won't have to ask the doctor. Then when we walk into the examination room, I banish her to the dodgy stool in the corner, out of the doctor's line of vision. I make up for this shoddy treatment with a trip to IHOP on our way home.
5. In crisis, always utter eight magical words. The once-off consultation with Dr. Conroy started out well. "You certainly have very good reflexes," he said, after hammering on my knee. "Oh, yes. Well, I've been working on that," I replied with a wince, instantly realizing how bad that lame flirtation sounded. Even worse, it didn't work. "I don't think there's anything else I can add here," he said as he closed my file and stood up. I tried to hide my shock and threw my eight-worded Hail Mary pass: "If you were me, what would you do?" He sat down and reopened the file.
The last thing I know about doctors is that the best ones have gone to the ends of the earth to keep me on it. Their Thanksgiving cards are in the mail.
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