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Shades of Grey

I’m a big Grey’s Anatomy fan. Let’s face it, there is something hopeful and inspiring about a group of doctors who are able to don their super hero capes and swoop into a surgical suite to perform medical miracles. They are so skilled, in fact, that most of the time, they don’t even get a drop of blood on their hospital green scrubs as they wave their scalpels, Harry Potter style, healing even the most complicated physical ailments.

But real life isn’t situational. Dangerous dilemmas and life-threatening illnesses aren’t neatly resolved in an hour. Hospitals are dangerously understaffed, nurses overworked and spread thin. Doctors do not form cozy personal relationships with their patients, sitting on the edge of their beds for hours to talk about how to heal their raw emotions as well as their broken bodies. Let’s face it, the show demonstrates pie-in-the-sky idealized medicine, and sadly, not what really is.

It would be nice to watch one episode from a patient’s point of view, for an audience to see what somebody who is chronically ill really faces. I am sure that most of you already know, but indulge me as I give you a peek into the reality of modern medicine.

Doctor’s offices are busy places, with each person allotted 10.3 minutes with the expert to plead their case. We are ever-reminded that while everybody there swears to be dedicated to the brotherhood of healing, they are also involved in a business. Big business. And unfortunately, that is evident from the moment you enter the reception area. The wait times always exist, often for an hour or more as we watch for the door to open, signaling our turn to be escorted into the inner sanctum of healing. There is a reason why we are called patients… it requires, well, patience. (How’s that for a pun?) There is a polite detachment between the sick and their health care providers. Technology has changed everything in America, including that doctor-patient relationship. I have had far too many one-sided conversations with the medical pros as they click away at their computer keyboard, documenting my symptoms and prescribed treatment. Often, I am tempted to ask if they are consulting Mr. Google, because that is how it seems, the objective facts and figures replacing the human connection. I have learned to navigate through the many physician assistants and nurse practitioners, who see me far too often because the doctor in charge is over extended and only spends time with the sickest of the sick. I figure if a stage 4 cancer diagnosis doesn’t move me to the front of the line, then what would? I’m afraid to ask. And yes, it is disappointing. Disheartening, really. I wonder if this is the evolution of health care, the result of too many sick people and too few trained to help them. Has supply versus demand changed things? Or am I encountering the new physician, whose hands-off approach and lack of personal involvement reflect how we view each other in this modern “snap chat” society? I don’t have the answers, but the questions are unsettling to me.

I have lived for a long time. I remember when our family doctor made house calls, a visit to check on me when I was too sick to get to his office. He always smelled like aftershave and disinfectant, and when he leaned over my bed to listen to my chest, I found comfort in his touch. If he had nowhere else to go afterwards, my dad would offer him a scotch on the rocks while he wrote a prescription. (And btw, the drug store delivered.) When I was eight and had my nearly ruptured appendix removed, that same doctor was there when I woke from the anesthesia, patting my shoulder reassuringly. He even brought me a teddy bear one morning when he made rounds. His kindness was legendary. Yeah, the good old days were really that good.

The fallacy of Grey’s Anatomy is that the show would leave you to believe that such doctors still exist, that compassion is the norm, rather than the exception. I wish that were true. Those of us who have been the recipient of such care in the past, long to find it once more in this modern medical community. But sadly, I have only encountered one such physician in recent years. Fortunately, he guided me through the initial months of my treatment and ultimately performed my cancer surgery. As he held my hand and prayed with me, his kind words soothed my troubled soul. I felt protected, unafraid. We are told that the mind/body connection is real and while healing cannot be reduced to a prescribed formula, it is evident that his kind of medicine is the most effective. It works. Now, he has now retired, and I am once again like an unmoored ship, searching for a safe harbor in this sea of medical practitioners. Wish me luck. My life depends on it.

When I have an initial appointment with a physician, I always lead with the same question: "are you a side- of-the-bed doctor or a foot-of-the-bed doctor?" And I can’t help but feel amused when these professionals with ten years or more of advanced education look puzzled. It seems rather straightforward to me. And most will smile as they deflect, clear their throats and get on with the obligatory diagnostic questions. It makes me wonder: where is Meredith Grey when you really need her? Oh, right, she only exists in the world of make-believe.

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