As the lone boat crew member with Floating Doctors, I have spent the last month in the company of many wonderful doctors, nurses and med students and have had a backstage pass to every diagnosis and conversation.
To see the world through the filter of a doctor is fascinating and often hilarious.Walking through town, we saw a street dog pee for so long that he had to switch legs, prompting a discussion on the condition of his prostate.When we are out salsa dancing, I’ll overhear them discussing the leg length discrepancy of my dance partner. To be around them is to constantly laugh at the body and to be reassured that doctors are deliciously human.
For me, this is a welcome relief from the strange and often unprofessional doctors I have been treated by. I have become convinced that my insurance must emit some wacky frequency that only the misfit doctors can hear.
When I was thirteen, my charming Greek orthodontist refused to wear gloves, even when I shyly asked him to. Instead, he preferred to compliment my cheek bones and encourage me to”pursue dramatics.” Peace Corps brought me Dr. L, who used to work at a women’s prison. She once scraped a biopsy off my head in the backyard. With a brisk “looks like skin cancer,” she walked off, dismissing my follow up questions for a week. One doctor used to yell patients’ results through the paper thin walls to his receptionist while another gave me unsolicited sex tips to avoid bladder infections while making extremely intense eye contact. And let’s not forget Dr. E who divulged the first and last names of his first HIV positive patient out of the blue. Another doctor cried during my surgical consult, complaining of how hard it was to keep a private practice going. My new chiropractor speaks to me exclusively in an Irish accent because people are scandalized when they find out I’m not Irish. “But look at you…and your name is Erin” Yes. And yours is doctor so I guess truly anything is possible. I have developed a strange attitude of “what will happen next,” as if these are circus performers, not the people tasked with caring for me.
Here in Bocas, I feel the very opposite. If I get so much as irritated skin, three doctors offer concern and follow up for days after. My friends genuinely love medicine. I found them one Sunday morning huddled over a medical book, their voices sparking with excitement because they had diagnosed a leprosy case. Dinner conversations are often peppered with apologies to me for their very graphic observations on the human body. “You know that bedsore on her bum- can someone pass the salt?” Or “He had gangrene on his penis…Oooh, the fish is good.” Over coffee and pie; “my least favorite part of med school was the tank of brains.” “Mine was the hands. How’s your cappuccino?” We have spent more than one dinner talking about the things humans stick inside themselves, ranging from light bulbs to my personal favorite: a soup ladle. Fair enough- how else was she supposed to get the potato out?
For all the fun we have, there is a side to medicine that I never considered. Doctors see us at our most vulnerable, but we see them at theirs, as well. We just don’t realize it because they must try to remain impermeable to those pesky human emotions we are allowed as patients to freely feel.There is always a first time doctors do something and like any job, it doesn’t always go smoothly. Imagine doing your first amputation or asking your supervisor a question while performing surgery on a patient you thought was sedated. One doctor watched a father waste the last few moments of his son’s life being physically restrained in the ICU because he was so drunk. My Austrian friend was horrified to work in a U.S. hospital, where she saw a man have to decide which finger to save because his insurance would not cover an operation to save both. They see trauma in all forms come for people of all ages and I wonder how they process so much without losing it.
We have also had important conversations about the work we are all doing here. What’s the point;is it sustainable? Are we like the missionaries biking around in neckties? Is it up to us to decide how another culture should live? Of course not. But if there is some measure of relief that can be given, it probably ought to be. Peace Corps helped me develop strong feelings against being an American who arrives in a culture and tells them how to live. Someday soon I’ll write that story. But I think if this sort of work is done with self-awareness and respect, it can be very beneficial to people in these sometimes forgotten communities.
While I stand by the fact that my doctors have been less than ideal, spending time with people like these has restored my faith in the healers. And convinced me that if I ever get really sick, I should try to do that in Austria.