A one-stop doctor’s visit is history. Today, with the proliferation of medical specialties, one visit is just for starters.
Consider this: We have doctors for our noses and throats, others for our hearts, colons and for our reproductive organs. There are kidney doctors, hearing doctors, nerve doctors, eye doctors, and doctors for our skin and our bones. There are doctors that treat our minds, some that treat only children and others so specialized that they treat just knees. Some treat hips exclusively and still others who only work on hands. Finally, there’s the primary physician. He or she routs us to all the other doctors.
Did I mention dentists and orthodontists?
St. Paul put the matter this way: “For as the body is but one and has many members, and the members of the body, although many, are one body, and so it is.” And, so it is today, almost two thousand years later. We may present our primary physician with only one body, but we shortly learn just how many members it really has.
I find it comforting. I’m assured that my unruly knee or my aching back or any of my ailing members are getting the best expertise available to help them mend. This is good.
However, the route to my healing keeps me constantly on the road. This is to say that with my aching back, I first go to my primary. He refers me to an orthopedic specialist. From there I’m sent to a cardiologist to see whether my heart is up to the rigors that the orthopedist’s interventions involve, and then subsequently for a run of blood tests and finally to a physical therapist to get the body in the best condition possible to aid in its recovery.
In short, I’m on the road much more than I would if I had no complaints. I also spend lots of time sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms. Time well spent, of course, but tedious nonetheless.
Here, the word ‘patient’ assumes particular significance. Depending on the physician’s ability to manage time, waiting to see him or her can seem endless. Even the rigorous economic constraints that HMO’s place upon a physician’s management of time hasn’t yet trickled down to seeing the patient at the appointed time. Those patients do grumble who only sit and wait, but they do sit and wait.
If I’m lucky, the wait can be as short as ten or fifteen minutes. It may last as long as an hour or even more. It’s like sitting in a train or plane terminal. There’s little to do. Patients pull out iPhones, thumb through magazines from as far back as 2003, or just watch people coming and going. I’m sometimes alarmed at how some people I’ve known, but not seen for a while, have aged. They may feel the same about me. Of course, no one will ever say this to your face.
This brings me to a delicate topic; how we feel about aging. Some people will tell me, when they learn how old I am, how they cannot believe it; that I look so much younger. This is meant to be kind. It raises a thorny issue, however. It is as if aging were an aberration. No one will tell you, with the same casual ease by which you’re told you look younger, that you’re looking really old.
Whenever I ponder this matter I think of some trees that I see. There’s an Osage Orange tree on Goldsborough St. which has to be over 100 years old. I have two Locust trees near my house. I cannot tell their ages, but they’re clearly old. Their wrinkles, their gnarled bark and the way age has bent and curved their trunks into incredibly elegant postures, I find lovely. An old Hackberry tree in front of my house twists and turns and looks like a ballerina reaching for the sky. No bark without blemish, here. They’re old and they’re beautiful. We have as yet to advance a comparable aesthetic for the evolution of the human body. The appearance of youth is the prevailing standard. We haven’t settled yet how real grown-ups ought to look.
Any discussion of the medical arts invariably involves the aging population. We are their biggest consumers. Longevity, largely made possible by modern medicine, leads to still another issue: the meaning of life. In this matter we have, as Shakespeare once wrote, “more need of the priest than the physician.” The meaning of life is a spiritual matter.
What’s a life for, anyway? What’s next after we’ve fulfilled the biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply?” Do we just hang around as long as we can? Well, yes and no.
Hospice has been helpful in reminding us that it’s important to recognize deadlines, in a manner of speaking, and that there is a time for everything under the sun, one of them being a time to die. The subject of death is now gradually coming out of the closet. We’re learning that dying can be done with dignity and comfort.
But what about living the long haul? How we might live meaningfully becomes the abiding concern, not how long. Have we found a substantial meaning for our lives?
My grandson, Patrick, is a professional musician. His specialty is the harpsichord. He performs regularly with regional orchestras and presents solo performances. Recently, he played at a funeral in Oxford. Afterward he came for lunch. We talked all afternoon about his life as a musical artist and the vision of his career. In the conversation, he made what I thought was a visionary statement for such a young man.
The family had asked that a François Couperin piece be played on the harpsichord at the funeral. The deceased had loved the harpsichord and that particular piece. In playing the selection, Patrick experienced a strong feeling about what was happening to him as he played. He felt intently how the music connected him to the congregation, the deceased’s loved ones, and perhaps to the deceased himself. The ‘performance’ became something far greater than just a “gig.”” He understood music as his means for connecting him deeply to other people at a level deeper than he’s ever felt in routine performances. The harpsichord was his instrumental means by which he gave expression to what he loved most while touching the lives of others at the same time.
Patrick was not describing playing for an audience; but a meaningful way of being.
I suspect that’s what a life is for on the long haul; to find that individual way we can give to others the gifts we have.
It’s satisfying to know we make difference in the lives of others. It makes it all worthwhile.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.