Magazine | July 5, 2010, Issue

A Drink to Your Health

Three cheers for NR’s John Derbyshire. I was thrilled to read in his recent column that he avoids doctors — is, in fact, what he calls an “iatrophobe.” I’m one, too.

The root cause of my iatrophobia is simple bad timing. Back when I was healthy, going to the doctor was called going to the doctor, but now that I’m falling apart it’s called Health Care. It’s a little about health and a lot about caring, especially caring about insurance, and it works both ways. The lady who just became my ex-doctor practiced defensive medicine like nothing I have yet seen or read about. To make sure she could not be sued, she referred everything that moved to anything that billed. She kept urging me to see specialist after specialist, undergo treatment after treatment, test after test, therapy after therapy. When she noticed the age spots on my forearms she said they could be skin cancer. When I refused to go to the dermatologist she plucked from her referral list she abruptly changed the subject, saying she wanted to order another heart ultrasound even though I had just had one two weeks before in the hospital. I refused this as well.

Next, she got on the home-oxygen bandwagon. I gave it a try but, as I later explained, trailing a wire around after myself made for constant stress. Besides the danger of tripping over it (I almost did once), it would get caught on things, so that I had to retrace my steps and untangle myself. Given my irascible temperament, this was much more likely to trigger a stroke than something grand and dramatic like a blood clot.

She had yet another ace up her sleeve. Now she wanted to kit me out in what she called “ambulatory oxygen.” This one’s a real honey. It’s an oxygen tank for use outdoors; you carry it in a shoulder-sling bag like a papoose. It made me wonder if doctors had a problem with simple common sense. Didn’t they realize that there is no such thing as a “portable” oxygen tank? It weighs so much that it defeats its own purpose. She said I should use it when I go out, but when I go out it’s always to the grocery store or the library — where I get something heavy. I vetoed her yet again.

“I fail to see how lugging around what amounts to an artillery shell helps me breathe better.”

#page#Our final fight was about vodka. She had the records of my hospital stay, when I had to answer all sorts of questions about my medical history from my 1943 tonsillectomy on down to the present. They asked me how much I drank and I said, “I don’t know. After I finish writing, I unwind with two or three or four, depending, then when I’m hungry I eat.” The ER doctor quoted only the numbers and added, in that tight-sphinctered medical prose: “Patient admits to doing this heavy drinking for many years.” If doctors worked on newspapers they would know what heavy drinking really is, but they don’t, so officially and for posterity, I am a designated drunk.

My doctor latched on to this, probably weighing addiction specialists. “What do you drink?”

“Vodka.”

“Straight?”

“No, I have Russian wetnurses.” She asked for a definition. “It’s a vodka and milk highball,” I explained.

“You drink that?

“Don’t worry, it’s skim milk.”

It was my last appointment. Sniffing the air, she accused me of having drunk vodka that very day, claiming she could smell it across the room.

“You should leave your nose to the American Kennel Club,” I said, and left.

I have a new doctor now and so far I like him, but I am into terminal iatrophobia because Health Care is making everybody sick. The tea partiers accuse the feds of trying to take it over, but in fact it’s the other way around. Whoever acts like the government is the government: Getting sick has become such a confused, time-wasting, bureaucratic mess that Health Care has taken over the government.

Much of the trouble lies in the nature of insurance itself. You can insure a single thing — a life, a house, a car — but you can’t insure a system or a method, and certainly not a philosophy or an outlook.

Thanks to Health Care, American hypochondriacs are no longer fun, like poet Sara Teasdale, who was certain her thumb was going to fall off after she sprained it in a taxicab. Traditional hypochondriacs had a strong ego, a firm grip on eccentricity, and an appreciation of studied contrariness, especially in themselves. They also had a vocabulary that infused medical science with high drama. They said “consumption” because it sounded more deadly than the jaunty “T.B.,” they believed “descending womb” was more fraught with female martyrdom than “prolapsed uterus,” and they were devoted to the word “croup” because it sounds like a cough.    

Health Care has created the New Hypochondriacs, who pride themselves on being “Aware.” It’s easy to see how they got that way. Turn on the TV and nine times out of ten it will come up on disease infos and ads for prescription meds full of prolix scientific lingo. The Awares aren’t fazed a bit. Merck Manual junkies and haunters of medical websites, they can toss around the pros and cons of Marzipanus Angelitrol EH versus Vercingetorix Gaulicillin IP. In their detailed queries to “Ask Dr. Donohue” they sound more like consulting physicians than laymen, and they refer to CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta by his first name.

Chalk up another flying leap for American equality. Doctor-and-patient are no more. The Awares now see their healers as partners in a democratized version of the Stockholm syndrome: Be your own kidnapper, hold yourself hostage, and call it a Health Care Crisis.

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