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Mark Steinberg

Mark Steinberg

Posted: January 5, 2011 12:59 PM

When I was growing up, my family relied upon a stable of health care professionals whose idiosyncrasies remain seared into my memory.

Our family doctor, for example, believed that no one was ever really sick. He interpreted the "do no harm" admonition in the Hippocratic Oath as "do no nothing except when you see arterial blood."

For him, patients were whiners who paid him $10 to listen to their complaints. Inexplicably, the fact that he routinely told them they weren't sick didn't drive them to physicians who had gone to the effort of obtaining prescription pads.

To do him justice, however, he did make house calls. But admirable as that might seem, he was not someone whom Alfred Nobel would have invited over for gravlax.

First, he weighed about 250 pounds. Second, my mother was a terrific cook. Third, he scheduled his visits to our house at breakfast or lunchtime.

In other words, we paid our family practitioner ten bucks to stuff himself with brisket, then to render an opinion that no one in the house was sick.

Given his professional catechism and personal metabolism, we turned elsewhere when emergencies arose. Fortunately, my father was a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer and maintained a Rolodex of physicians who could be called upon to handle urgent problems, such as the failure of a medical expert witness to show up in court.

My personal experience with one of my Dad's A-list testifiers occurred when I was eight-and-a-half. I fell while running in the park, and sliced open two inches of flesh just below my right knee. My family loaded me into the car and drove to what appeared to be a deli with a red cross on the window.

After my Dad had rung the bell for around five minutes, a man appeared at the door wearing a white bathrobe. He ushered us into a room with a metal table, surrounded by the most terrifying instruments I'd ever seen.

There were little knives arrayed in ascending order of size, which I concluded were going to be used to reach my heart, stopping it long enough to stanch the flow of my blood so the doctor could see which of my parts he was sewing to which of my other parts. There was a seven-foot long syringe that was going to be worked inch by inch into the gash to determine how deep it was. And there was a shiny saw that I figured the doctor would use to remove the evidence if he botched the job.

After concluding a discussion with my father about the sorry state of contingency fees, the doctor turned to examining me. As he prodded and poked he gave a running narrative of what he saw, sounding a lot like someone talking to twelve people sitting in two rows of six. My Dad asked a number of questions that began with, "So if I understand what you're telling us, doctor..."

When the operation concluded, he wiped his hands on his bathrobe and offered everyone a bagel.

A couple of weeks later we returned for removal of my stitches. What I saw when the bandages were peeled back looked like the mouth of a rabid Raggedy Ann doll. It was crooked, it was red, and, like me, really wanted its Mom. The doctor assured me, however, that the scar would disappear in a few months, perhaps sooner.

As I look down today at the two inch quarter moon below my right knee, I have a much better understanding of why my father had high regard for this physician as a malpractice expert. He was not some snobby patrician in a white coat who'd published thirty-five articles in the New England Journal of Medicine. No, he was a licensed practitioner who knew medical malpractice from the inside, someone who had been there and done that.

The family dentist rounded out our health care triumvirate. He conducted his practice in an office connected to his one bedroom apartment. When you walked up the thirty-seven steps from the street to his office, the smells of burning toast and frying liver intermingled with those of antiseptic and abject fear.

The doctor's drill, likely purchased at the Going Out of Business sale of the Spanish Inquisition, was belt-driven and had a non-factory-installed feature that varied its speed at random intervals. He administered Novocain in a fashion that made me wish he had knocked me senseless. Given the right conditions, I believe his nasal bad breath might also have been a reasonable alternative. When I was lucky, he'd be forced to cancel an appointment so he could attend a disciplinary hearing.

These experiences have led me to a set of rules to live by, or to keep myself alive by, when dealing with medical professionals.

First, never go to a doctor who will work for less than retail or who owes you a favor. What you're going to get is generic rather than brand treatment. And while your medical insurer may do cartwheels when it gets the news, your life insurance company is going to be really pissed off.

Second, never put your life or your mouth in the hands of a practitioner who's running late and has a lunch appointment.

Third, don't confuse expertise in critiquing a doctor's performance with expertise in performing as a doctor. Roger Ebert isn't Francis Ford Coppola. Marv Albert isn't Peyton Manning. And who Sarah Palin isn't could fill a phone book.

Finally, show a little love. These people may come within millimeters of your vital or just-for-fun organs. Doing something that offends them runs the risk that you might never again see the light of day or, if you do, that life is no longer worth living.