Surrounded by measles, I turn in my beeper and my key doesn’t work


Could my happiness ever run deeper?

Could a thrill come any cheaper?

     I took the thing from my belt,

    Oh, the joy that I felt!

Today, I gave up my beeper.

 

I slept very badly my last night on call, from vigilance rather than need.

Thursday dawns cloudy, windy, and cool as I drive down Pierce Street for my radio segment.

I discussed measles.

During my childhood everyone knew what the word measles meant, though common knowledge didn’t help distinguish between the hard measles, the three-day measles, or the German measles.  Now measles is so rare that most docs in town have never seen a case.

If I hadn’t worked Tuba City, Arizona in the spring of 1987, I wouldn’t have seen measles at all.

A terrible disease, I announced to the radio audience, with high fever, a rash, and the three C’s: cough, conjunctivitis (runny eyes), and coryza (runny nose).  I remembered vividly the epidemic in the Navajo and Hopi patients at Tuba City and the distinctive rash: deep red and bumpy, heaviest in the midline and the armpit and groin creases.

One MMR injection confers 80% immunity and two gives 99%.  The Indians I worked with in Arizona had a very high single immunization rate, but the current standard demands two shots.  The vaccination protects so well that most nine-year-olds have never even heard the word measles, let alone mumps or rubella.

Four measles outbreaks surrounded Iowa as I spoke.

I enjoyed the show and the repartee with the DJ before, during and after my microphone time.  I stepped out to the parking lot, into the wind and the fresh air. 

I drove to St. Luke’s and parked under the portico by the valet, assuring him I won’t be but 30 seconds. 

The two phone operators work just inside the front doors of the hospital.  At 7:02 I handed my beeper over, explaining that as I have just finished my last night on call I won’t be needing it again.

Perhaps the beeper only weighed three ounces, but it felt like I’d carried a 60 lb albatross on my neck for the last 23 years and I had just put it down.

I turned and I took a step towards the electric door and then I couldn’t help dancing, kicking high, into the driveway, past the valet to my parked car.

I walked the way I walked in May 1972 when I finished my last exam over a very good demographics course, taught by Henry Harpending (still a distinguished academic who makes an occasional appearance on The History Channel) which forever changed the way I view politics and social trends.  I finished early and turned in my blue book to the professor seated at the front of the room. I slapped high fives with every student still writing in the first row, and strode out into a hazy, warm spring day.

But it wasn’t my last exam.  Eight months later I decided to become a doctor, and for the next seven years I kept taking tests.  When I took the last examinations in med school in 1979, I wrote my mother a letter that started, “It is the end of an era.  I have taken my last exam.”

Except that wasn’t my last exam, either.  All the tests I took were merely exercises before the three-day monster called the FLEX.  I did well on it in 1979 and I got my license.

Nowadays I just have one six-hour test every seven years.

And it wasn’t my last night on call,  just the last night on call till I start my next job in Barrow.

I don’t have to but I drive out to the clinic in the early afternoon.  The lock has been changed and my key doesn’t open the door.  The artwork has been taken off the walls in my office, and boxed up.

A little premature, but I don’t mind.

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