Chickenpox, shingles, and widows. Drama=irony, surgery=theatre

For lunch I had me a pie

I went back to work bye and bye

          I am no cheater

          If surgery’s theatre

I won’t make the audience cry.


Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to avoid burnout, while my non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Just back from a six-week assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, right now I’m working on the North Island of New Zealand.

I arrived early at the clinic in Snell’s Beach and started work in the quiet of the morning.  With the doors of the clinic open to the sunny, cool air, I reviewed lab and x-ray results; four of fourteen needed follow-up.

When patients started, I refilled a lot of prescriptions, many of them for asthma.  A lot of kiwis have asthma, mostly unrelated to smoking.  The commonest combination, salbumetol and flixitide, would be called albuterol and fluticasone in the States.

In New Zealand, surgery refers to seeing outpatients.  What we would call surgery at home gets the word theatre here.  Thus whereas in the States “Have you done much theatre?” might mean anything from “What live acting credits do you have?” to “Are you gay?” the Kiwis mean “Have you done many operations?”

At lunch I stepped outside into perfect weather, with cool, breezy air and bright clear sunshine, and went to the bakery for an unhurried steak and curry meat pie.

Back at the clinic I’d started tidying up my documentation when the nurse said, “I know you’re still on your lunch break, but…” 

In fact, I’m not used to an hour lunch break; at home I got into the habit of bolting my meals.  Of course when I got the opportunity to do what the locals would call theatre to help a patient cope with the consequences of steel’s excess kinetic energy contacting flesh I said yes.

When I finished I found myself twenty minutes behind schedule.

I’d almost caught up by 4:00 when a patient asked for a letter for court.  I couldn’t contact the requesting lawyer.  I made it clear that both parties had to be comfortable with the letter, and I would only write truth but not conjecture.  I wrote, we edited, and in the end, the piece of paper left with the patient but the process took twenty-five minutes.

By 5:15 I’d seen 24 patients and written refill prescriptions for another.  One third of my patients, both male and female, mentioned their status as widows.  Half had been widowed more than once, all wanted to tell their stories, and the drama and irony of the human condition flowed raw and unrestrained.  I listened with sympathy.  At one point I mentioned the high rate of spousal death.  “Oh, yes,” the patient said, “Snell’s Beach is full of us.”

Four of the day’s patients had superficial skin infections.  One had shingles, and I remarked that if it didn’t presage a chickenpox outbreak it would constitute a unique experience in my career.

I drove the rough, narrow, winding road with dense traffic and courteous drivers to the clinic in Wellsford.  I checked in with the nurses, and a flurry of confusion followed.  With my name on the roster (as they call the schedule), and another doctor’s name on the computer template, I had the option of taking off and going home.

The thought of another forty minutes on the roads pushed my decision to take the night on call, thereby earning me a dinner break and collegial gratitude.

I walked down the street, gobbled mediocre steam-table Chinese food, and walked back in the gathering gloom.

The anticipated chicken pox outbreak had arrived, the pharmacy (in Kiwi, the “chemist’s”) had closed, but I rooted through the after-hours drug dispensary and found, to my surprise, a good supply of aciclovir.

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