The Unsympathetic Doctor

Being the responsible daughter that I am, I took my mother to her family doctor appointment today. Nothing serious, the appointment was just a routine check-up and an initiation of relationship with a PCP, as both of us are new to Houston, but I walked out of that little corner clinic shell-shocked with my jaw dropping. I hate admitting the fact that I’m often driven by emotions, but I’m only a woman, and I would spend the next half of my day trying to shake off the doctor’s stink.

For one, the moment you step through the door you’re punched in the face with the smell of smoke, so pungent and putrid. I was immediately put off. I had already woken this morning with a left-temporal headache, and the smoke did me no favors, but also, why the f*** is anyone smoking in a doctor’s office?

I hope you’re one who knows, but smoking does kill you. Be stubborn all you want when you’re addicted, the fact is quite simple. Expect a shorter lifespan. Secondhand smoke? Milder in comparison, but also bad, and frankly, dangerous for those with lung or heart conditions. So what kind of doctor was allowing her patients to be exposed? One who is either irresponsible or just a terrible doctor taught wrong.

After waiting an hour past our appointment, to which we were on time (seriously, what is the point of an appointment if you’re going to wait that long anyways), we met the doctor herself, who in appearance alone seemed kind. Truly, she had kind features. Her whole face wore lines of one who smiled often, and she was warm on the get-go, immediately bonding with my mother over their hometowns in Asia.

The office was quite poorly run. I saw no hand sanitizer anywhere around the rooms, and I watched the physician walk into and out of rooms with no bathroom visits in between. She examined my mother with no gloves, and under 2 separate occasions, my mother’s urine sample was labeled wrong.

Despite the above, though, I thought if my mother trusted the physician, all would be well. She was so sweet, but then my father was brought up.

“How did your husband die?”

“He died of liver cancer,” my mother says.

The doctor looks at me, sitting back in a corner chair with my book opened, though I’m paying more attention to the exam. “Eh, whatever, don’t think about it anymore. The past is the past.” I felt chills run up my back, her voice was so cold. She said this with a smile, as if the line of a joke, casually tossed around. She paid no condolences and offered no sympathy in her attitude. She could’ve done less damage with a shrug.

I spoke extensively with my mother about this on the car ride home, and though she also admitted the place suspicious (options are limited when you’re looking for fluency in a particular language), she assured me that what I had interpreted as borderline sociopathic was simply a cultural difference.

But the incidence recalled a similar episode 2 years ago while I was in college. My roommates and I were having a paint and wine night, and though I’m quite a private person, I tend to spill more beans after a drink or two. The subject of the night, sadly, was “worst moments of your life.”

I disclosed details that I wonder if I will ever repeat to anyone else, feeling my insides blacken with the memory, and at the very end, my roommate looks up and says, “That’s not bad.”

She will never know, but our friendship was never the same after that night. I grew cautious of all our interactions, careful not to say too much. Am I being sensitive and overreacting? Perhaps, but here’s the thing:

Everyone is in pain. Everyone has a worst memory. Everyone lived their own “worst day of their life,” and while I wholeheartedly agree that some worst days are just petty in comparison to others, the pain is the same in the fact that it was someone’s worst day. No one wants to expose their vulnerability only to hear others say that the darkest part of them is not dark enough in comparison. Those words will only drive people to withdraw further, will only instill more fear against emotional intimacy.

In the meantime, when my father died, I found two comforts particularly comforting.

One, from a good friend, who called me while I was sitting in my car outside of the hospital after 22 hours of driving: “You have to do this. You have no choice, and things will suck for a while, but time will go on, and one day, things will get better, and this will just be another part of your past.”

The second, from the owner and manager of the funeral home, when we asked how he could bear to see death everyday: “I don’t see death so much as a sad thing, especially in death after illness, when they’ve been suffering in life, because I know they’re somewhere free of pain, so I imagine these loved ones are on vacation, on some sunny island with everything they could’ve possibly wanted. I’ll see them again soon enough.”