Little Big Medicine


Originally published: December 7, 2009

Fingering the lint in the pocket of my jean jacket, elbow tucked in, I bob toward the hospital, headphones creating a parenthetical phrase of my face. The rotisserie joint that bastes this corner with the ghosts of rubbed and roasted chickens isn’t yet open for lunch, though the smoke is billowing. Across Lee Highway I stride, past the new bank with its anachronistic columns (an architectural tic in these parts) casting old-world shadows over new grass and juvenile shrubs dwarfed in dark mulch. 

A couple of blocks along, I pass the house on the hill that has the words JESUS IS LOVE arranged in white stones where the scrubby lawn slopes to almost vertical at the sidewalk. Faux mums and carnations bloom everlastingly among the letters, unevenly faded by months in the hot sun, their cloth petals ragged from genuine rain and wind. I imagine they will look otherworldly when it snows in a couple of months. The house above stares down George Mason Drive, a satellite dish cocked expectantly on its roof, tinkling wind chimes swinging crazily off a downspout. Someone had enough faith to balance on this slope arranging the truckload of stones and sticking those plastic stems deep into the earth. I guess there are less benign things they could claim: JESUS IS WATCHING YOU, maybe. I can live with JESUS IS LOVE. 

I say hello to anyone I pass, their answering nods pantomimed to the music in my ears that drowns out everything but an ambulance wailing toward the ER. The hospital looms ahead, the cars now parked grill to bumper along the curb, filling in the no-pay spaces before the metered parking nearer the building. Being on foot has its advantages. 

Through the automatic door, past people in wheelchairs, up the stairs and into the waiting room my doctor shares with several other orthopedic surgeons. There is the ubiquitous fish tank. Every medical office must be required to keep one. Waiting for my name to be called, I wonder if the fish mix it up to stave off boredom – ok, now you be the one that darts manically in and out of the resin castle. Your motivation? Um, you’re angry at being stuck in this stupid fish tank your whole life. Is that motivation enough for you? Up and down, in and out, over and under - that was great! Now I’ll do the castle thing and you hover around that tube and act shocked every time bubbles come out. 

When it’s my turn, Dr. A is all smiles as usual. He’s one of those rare doctors who makes you feel witty and lovely and valuable. When he touches you it’s light but intimate – not in a creepy way, but in a way that says, you are a person and are hardly loathsome. You are probably not riddled with disease. 

When some doctors touch you, you know they’re doing it because an old professor in medical school required that they do so, even if that patient is repellant, the professor would instruct. These doctors undoubtedly attended a seminar on the issue of doctor/patient touching and probably sat in the back reading their biochem notes. When that kind of doctor touches you, it’s an after thought, as if that old professor is hissing, Touch! Touch now! Oh, for the love of Pete, just put your Goddamn hands on her! And then they do touch you – a pat on your shoulder, perhaps – and then act as if you might bite and most certainly wipe their hands on their white coats afterwards.

But Dr A has an Italian name, so maybe he’s just a good toucher by genetic predetermination. And he’s handsome, but not embarrassingly so, not so that you feel uncomfortable. It’s an unassuming, brotherly kind of cute. He’s the kind of doctor who makes you think, if only all my doctors were like him.

So we chat and he examines the elbow in question for my allotted 3 minutes, but he makes me feel so witty and lovely and valuable that it seems more like 10 minutes. He tells me in the same voice a coach might use to chasten his team before the big game - to take it easy, not to lift anything. He does not, he says, want to redo the surgery. Tendon surgery takes a long time to heal, he reminds me. He touches me again on the arm (and it is, as I say, not at all creepy but nice), and says he’ll see me in a month. 

Then Technician J comes in and smiles as he sets down his tray with suture-removing tools, gauze pads and Steristrips. As he gently tweezes the blue thread out of the puffy flesh of my elbow, I remind him that he took the X-rays of my son’s broken leg a while back. I am sure he’ll have no memory of it. He looks at me and I notice that one eye is looking at me and the other is looking toward the far wall and that it gives him a kind of tragic nobility, like Quasimodo only not remotely monstrous. He looks at the name on the chart, and says, “Oh. Yes. The soccer player, right? That was a very bad break. You don’t see that very often,” His voice is softly accented, and his face serene, despite the unusual directions of his gaze. And I think, if only all my medical technicians were like him.

Downstairs in the physical therapy suite, for the first of many sessions, I am assigned Therapist C. If I spelled out his full name, you would see it’s a name that didn’t allow him many other career choices – it was destined to be something muscular. But he wins my heart because when I walk in, right away he’s there with a heating pad folded in a towel. This he wraps gently around my now bare and vulnerable elbow and tells me to relax and to holler if it becomes too hot, which I tell him it won’t because I love heat. The pad would have to be on fire to be too hot for me. 

We begin so gently that I hardly know he’s doing anything as he holds my hand and massages my arm from elbow to wrist. This is done with a business-like intimacy; he has ownership of my elbow for this space of time. It’s strange to relinquish control of a body part, but also relieving –ok, friend, you drive for a spell while I get some shut-eye. He tells me about his long-distance girlfriend and how complicated that can be but also how they seem to make it work, though of course it’s hard to say because it’s been long distance from the beginning, and you know how that can be. We agree that you can get to know someone pretty well through phone calls. I find myself offering encouragement and advice because he makes me feel worldly and effusive all at once. Sometimes he gets so involved in what he’s telling me about his relationship with his girlfriend that he stops working on my arm. I glance away from his blue eyes down to my elbow, subliminally reminding him, dude, you’ve still got work to do despite this disturbing moodiness she’s exhibiting, and he’ll take the hint and get back to the manipulation of my bruised arm, changing over to stories about his roommate who leaves bread crumbs and tomato seeds all over the kitchen counter when he makes himself a sandwich. 

C then gives me some simple exercises, apologizing for their ease, but reminding me that that’s how we do things post-surgery. I feel pretty stupid doing them – hand up, hand down, hold for five, repeat thirty times. Pronation, supination, hold for five, thirty times. Things like that. On the next table, a woman is on her back, a huge rubber ball between her knees, squeezing it and almost weeping. Across the room is an ancient man in a Las Vegas sweatshirt doing towel slides. C is now up on a table, astride an athletic man, pushing against his hip, the man grunting in pain. And I – up -twothreefourfive, down-twothreefourfive - feel like a malingerer.

I am under the watchful eyes of Assistant T, who makes sure I am taking this seriously. I am. What I cannot do is keep count, and I’ve no idea if I’ve done 20 or 30 reps. T doesn’t judge, however, and when I say I’m done, he brings me another pad in a towel, this time icy cold, which I am not such a fan of, but which feels appropriately therapeutic on my sore elbow. Ten minutes in the freezerwrap, and I am done. I say see-you-next-time and stride out of the hospital, fishing the headphones out of my pocket, past people – mostly old yet some disturbingly young- parked in wheelchairs near the sliding door to the outside, all waiting for someone to transport them somewhere, or at least for someone to push them into the fall sunshine.

    I pick up my playlist where I left off.


It’s almost February and I’ve been watching snow through the windows of the therapy room. I’ve also confirmed that indeed the faded flowers of JESUS IS LOVE look obstinately – perhaps insanely - colorful against dirty snow crusted with sand and salt.

Now that I am these many weeks post-surgery, I’m allowed to lift weights, and have moved up to the gnarlyest colored Theraband – black. I rotate hammers, squeeze contraptions and manipulate putty. I throw a heavy ball at a trampoline and do push-ups against the wall. And I have learned a lot more about C’s girlfriend situation. The other therapists are pressuring him to get engaged, a topic that makes his brow furl and his massage technique on my elbow get uncomfortably deep-tissue. 

After my last session I remove my final icepack. As I zip up my sweatshirt, shivering a little, I smile at an elderly woman who grimaces back good-naturedly as she spins her swollen legs on the contraption in front of her. Grinning, she says, “I surely am glad to see the hind end of that year! I seen pain and infection and thought I was at death’s door. Now this smile’s back on my face, and I ain’t never gonna let it go again.” She looks at me from under her bright purple hat. “You got to smile as much as you can. They can’t take that away from you. That happiness is yours alone, and if they do manage to steal it, it just won’t work for them ‘cause it’s yours and you alone get to keep a hold on it.” She raises her big, welcoming arms for a hug, which I give her, suddenly having to resist the urge to cry on her shoulder. Into my ear she says quietly, “You carve out time for yourself every day. If some days you just can’t, you put it in the bank. You’re young, and it accumulates. And girl, keep up that smile!” 

C shakes my hand, gives me a sheet of exercises and a pep talk about not slacking off. As I walk home, heavy coat buttoned up and headphones back over my ears, I realize I’ll never know whether C gets engaged to his moody, long-distance girlfriend. And now that therapy has ended, Jesus will have to go on shining his love onto George Mason Drive with out my observations, because now the love - and the exercises and the smiles– are entirely up to me.

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