The Truth About My Doctor
Florida State University. Christy’s apartment. I was starting my Senior year. Christy, her junior. We, along with her roommates and a few other folks, were cooking spaghetti. I think Christy was standing over the sauce pot stirring. The phone rang. Christy picked it up,. Her face lit. “Oh, hey John.” Followed by about five minutes of silence and a growing look of genuine concern.
Enter John Trainer. The Trainers and Christy’s family have been friends since Christy was a kid. They’d vacationed together. Holidays. Dinners. In the three years that Christy and I had been dating, John and I had never met (they lived in North Carolina) but I’d heard bits and pieces about him.
Christy spent five minutes on the phone. Listening. Nodding. I couldn’t hear what John was saying but I could tell from the verbal barrage, that he wasn’t pausing or coming up for air. He needed a friend. Christy looked at me and shrugged. Finally, she said, “John, I don’t know but here...talk to Charles.”
She handed me the phone. “Hello?”
“Charles, John Trainer here.” Without giving me much of a chance to introduce myself, John launched into a verbal vomit the likes of which I have seldom heard. The short and fast was this -- John was enrolled in Law School at Florida State. Just a few blocks away. The only person he knew in town was Christy. Hence, the phone call. Note, I said John was ‘enrolled’ in law school. I didn’t say he liked it. Truth was, he was miserable. Prior to arriving there, in a search for an answer to the what-should-I-do-with-the-rest-of-my-life-question, he’d asked others what they thought and several well-meaning people had told him that he’d make a fine attorney. That he could support his family. Have a nice life. Drive a Volvo. Etc. So, John, with no better option and thinking that driving a Volvo sounded like a good idea, enrolled in Law school. This decision came complete with six-figure student loans, intimidating-looking books, out-of-state tuition and a signed apartment lease. Remember that -- apartment lease. It’s key.
Because law school started about three weeks before regular school, he’d been in class, studying ‘the law’ for three weeks and he’d come to the rather embarrassing conclusion that he absolutely, with a passion, with finality, hated law school. Didn’t want anything to do with it. Or with being a lawyer. Perry Mason could stick it. So, sitting in his 150 sq. foot apartment, staring at a stack of books he had no desire to read, the ripple effects of this mistake and the downward trajectory of his life were starting to sink in. As was the weight of it.
I listened and heard real pain and desperation on the other end but I had no idea how to help him. He was in a ‘mell of a hess’ and needed someone much bigger than me. So, I said, “John, I have no idea how to help you and I know that you don’t know me from Adam’s house cat, but if you come over here, we’ll pray for you.”
The silence on the other end told me just how desperate he was. So did his response. “Well...okay.”
Five minutes later, John knocked on the door. The look on his face expressed agony. It also told me he was wrestling with What-on-earth-am-I-going-to-tell-my-parents? So, we put him in the middle of the living room and a bunch of us gathered around and prayed. No fireworks. No lightning bolt from on high. No answer out of the air vent in the ceiling. Just prayer and I think it sounded a lot like, “Lord, please help. You know the plans you have for us and you’re the only one who can fix this...” Or, something like that.
After that we ate spaghetti.
The next day, John withdrew from law school, sold back his books and returned his tuition loans. The only loose end was his apartment lease. They weren’t so kind. It’s a college town. Kids are fickle. You’re mistake is not their problem. I get it. So, realizing that he was stuck for the next nine months, needing to make rent, and with no other viable option, John took a job as a bank teller and spent the remainder of the school year in Tallahassee wrestling with What-do-I-want-to-do-when-I-grow-up? It was time well spent. Much of that wrestling he did with me sitting on the third story, metal fire escape of my house sipping Coronas.
About three months in, staring out across northeast Tallahassee, John lobbed a rhetorical softball up for our consideration. He often did this. I’m no match for his intellectual jousting which is probably why so many recommended law school but he admired my opinion so he asked anyway. “Charles...” A measured sip. A glance out of the corner of his eye. “I was thinking about going to medical school. Maybe...becoming a doctor.”
To be gut-level honest, I don’t know why it took him this long to get here. This is not rocket science. God made John to be a doctor. To help heal. Both inside and out. Anybody who’d ever met him knew this within the first five minutes. He possesses a God-given ability to empathize with other’s pain. Case in point -- we were once at a gathering. Seems like I remember a bond fire. Lots of people. Somebody was retelling a painful experience. I felt it in my gut. John felt it in his heart. In evidence of this, he passed out. Cold. Not because he couldn’t handle the pain of it. (He’s actually got a pretty high pain threshold. He’s been known to take his own blood.) But because he felt it, in its entirety. While the rest of us felt for that person. John felt what that person felt. Big difference.
The ball spun in the air. Hopes and dreams hanging in the balance. I shrugged, “John, you’d make a great doctor.”
John applied to medical school at Wake Forest. Got accepted. Married a beautiful classmate that’s probably smarter than him. Both later graduated with honors. (You should meet their children.) Since that bond fire, he’s figured out how to convert extreme empathy to a prescription for healing. Today, John is our primary care physician. His office is about three miles from where I now sit and, to his credit, he’s become one of the finest doctors I’ve ever met. On more than one occasion, I have sat in his office, pointing to a hurt or an ailment, and he’s said, “Let me pray for that.” Funny how life works.
Based on the significant role I played in the career trajectory of his life, and the fact that I am taking credit for a good bit of it, I figure he owes me. So, throughout my career, I have taken great liberties with both his cell phone and lunch hour asking him countless medical questions ranging from big picture to minutia.
With my first two books, he played a relatively insignificant role, but then came number three and the realization that I’d bit off more than I could chew. Hence, I took him to dinner. “John, I’ve got this little girl named Annie. She’s selling lemonade on the street corner. Yellow dress. Ribbon trailing down. She got a scar on her chest. Bad ticker. Nitro glycerin hanging around her neck and she’ll be dead in 6 months if I don’t get her some help.” John listened, nodded and then -- without making me feel like an idiot -- methodically helped me outline Annie’s physical digression and rather grave medical condition. When Crickets Cry bubbled up from there. Since then, he’s played a supporting role in most every medical decision I’ve made with my fiction. Early in The Mountain Between Us, I dialed his number. I could tell he was between patients so I said, “Okay, quick. I’ve just crashed a two-seater plane in the mountains. Man and woman. Not married. She’s broken her femur. Can’t walk. They’re a long way from nowhere. Nobody knows they’re there. They’ve got to walk their way out. How long can they make it before infection sets in?”
Silence. Wheels turning. Followed by, “Did the bone break the skin?”
“Dude, you’re the doctor. You tell me.”
“Well, if it’s a closed wound then you might get away with three weeks. Four on the outside.”
“Cool.” Click. As a result, Ashley’s wound never broke the skin and she and Ben spent four weeks in the mountains of Utah.
Over nine novels, John and I have had our fair share of ‘what if’ conversations. Coffee, beer, burrito, the trick is asking the right question. Tossing up the right rhetorical softball. From there, I just set back and watch him take batting practice. Truth is, if there’s medical credibility in my stories, John gets much, if not most, of the credit. I’m good at asking questions. At dreaming outside the box. He’s good at helping me understand the answers without making me feel stupid for not knowing or holding my ignorance over my head. In every case, his reaction and resulting explanation are a good reflection of his heart.
And yes, for the record, he did present me with a very fine and much-appreciated gift after I had a rather sensitive surgery in a place I wasn’t all that excited about having a surgery because we were finished having kids and Christy had been through enough with three deliveries. You get the picture.
Despite my glowing assessment of John, tied with the fact that he is a fine doctor, I do have two legitimate and very personal gripes that I would like to address directly and publicly with John. (You may hold the needle, but I hold the pen.)
The first is Coffee. Dude, you can’t tell people to quit coffee. It ain’t Christian. Ain’t even moral. Jesus would not do that to anyone. I don’t care what symptoms your patients present, or what your medical books tell you, scratch that from your lexicon. God drinks coffee. It’s why he made the beans. If you’re patients are having trouble, coffee is not the cause.
Secondly, the shot in the elbow thing. Let’s be honest, I nearly soiled myself in your office when you inserted that thing into my elbow. And, you knew I was going to. Now, to your credit, I have experienced some improvement in the area where you injected the medicine. That said, I am still experiencing considerable pain in the top of my forearm where I would not let you shoot it because I was crying like a baby and begging you to make the bad man stop.
So, with that in mind, and coupled with the knowledge that I know you feel cheated from finishing the job the first time, I’d like to make a proposition based upon a few quid pro quos: I will return to your office whereby you may continue said treatment of me, IF you play something fun and soothing like Dean Martin or Old Blue Eyes, bring me a warm towel for my forehead, a bucket for the contents of my stomach, an adult diaper as a precaution, a Disney Band-Aid for my boo-boo, swear your nurse to silence over my screaming like a girl, and finally, hand me a Margarita when I walk out the door.
If any of these conditions are not met, or violated in any way, or if the smirk on your face travels past the exterior crease of your nose as you reinsert the needle, please know that I will deal appropriately with you in novel #10. Etching your fame about the globe. Oh, and just so we’re clear, my books are now in something like twenty countries and about seventeen languages -- including Mandarin Chinese. There’s even talk that one might become a movie. Chances are good you’ll receive wide coverage.
Given that we are agreed, do you have any openings say tomorrow morning about 11:30? I’ve got this story idea and I was wondering...