Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's up Doc? - A look back at the family doctor

A flu shot administered where it ought to be - or so I'm told. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I went to the doctor for my annual physical today, which is no big deal really, as long as you don’t mind being poked and prodded for 10 minutes or so in places normally hidden from view.

I guess I can understand how a lot of guys feel extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of having some doctor they barely know stick his finger up their bum to check their prostate, or, if he’s feeling really ambitious, their tonsils. But my doctor is a little guy with small fingers, so it never bothers me much.

Today’s physical was no different. The nurse came in to have me fill out a form, stand on a scale, check my blood pressure, and then tell me to wait for the doctor. When the doctor came in the room it was more of the same. He looked in my ears, looked down my throat, and looked up my nose, all the while uttering things like “uh, huh” and “very well.”

Then he had me take off my shirt so he could peruse my torso for any odd-looking moles (as if all moles aren’t odd-looking). He asked a few questions here and there, and then the listened to my heart and lungs. Finally, he had me lie down on the examination table so he could play the bongo drums on my major organs for a few minutes with his fingertips.

Apparently satisfied with the tonal quality of my kidney, liver, and intestines, he then uttered the one phrase that keeps most men from seeing their doctor:

Drop your drawers and bend over." He said. "I want to make sure your prostate isn’t the size of a grapefruit.”

He smacked a latex glove into place, and then reached for the tube of lubricant.

“Sorry about this.” He said.

“Don’t sweat it, Doc - your finger is a heck of a lot smaller than what usually comes out of there.” I assured him.

Two seconds later he was done. I mean he was done, done, but since my pants were already pulled down, I asked him if he wanted to check my front side too, you know the “turn-your-head-and-cough” thing.

He told me it wasn’t necessary unless I thought I might have a hernia. I hadn’t really given it much thought up till then, so I probed around my groin and midsection for a while to see if anything hurt or seemed to be bulging out of place. Everything appeared to be pain free and relatively smooth, so I figured I was good to go until I remembered I had yet to get a flu this year. To be honest, I didn’t really know if I needed one, or if it even made sense at this point in the winter, but I thought I’d ask anyway.

“Hey Doc, do you think I should get a flu shot?” I asked, as I pulled up my pants. “Or does it even matter now?”

“Absolutely, it matters.” He said. “I’ll send the nurse back in.”

Shots, like prostate exams, are no big deal to me. Some people get nervous going to the doctor, or faint at the sight of a needle, but it doesn’t bother me one bit. I think it might have something to do with the doctor I had when I was a kid growing up in Berlin Heights, Ohio. His name was Dr. Richard Blackann, and in a town of 800 people, he was pretty much revered as a God.

Dr. Blackann was a man of large stature, both physically - standing nearly six and a half feet tall - as well as in the community where everyone looked up to him for his wisdom. He was a true throwback to a bygone era. He carried around one of those black doctor’s bags like you see in the movies, and he even made house calls (which seemed silly since his office was in the middle of town less than two miles from pretty much everyone who lived there).

I’ll never forget his office. It was in an old house on South Street right across from the funeral home (that seemed spooky to me as a kid, sort of like one-stop shopping in case Doc made some horrible mistake). His waiting room was actually an old living room; it had about five chairs, usually parked in a semi-circle on the blue carpet around a central table filled with magazines of every sort.

It also had a smell that was purely unique - like nothing and everything all at the same time; the perfect mixture of antiseptic, old house, and candy. And it was always warm, even in the dead of winter, thanks to the giant radiators that lined the walls of the waiting room.

Every now and then, the door to his office would swing open and you could sneak a peak inside at some other kid, or grown up, getting stitches in their head or having a tongue depressor rammed down their throat, but usually you just had to sit there and nervously wait for his assistant Gladys to call your name.

It was rare to hear anyone moaning or crying in the other room while you were waiting, not even kids. I think that was partly because Doc was so gentle, but mostly because every kid knew they’d get a sucker or a piece of candy if they could somehow make it through the visit tear free – the same went for adults.

I’ll never forget the inside of his office either. Rows and rows of clear glass jars, some filled with cotton swabs, others with tongue depressors and still others with actual aspirins, and, of course, there was always at least one filled with syringes. He had a mortar and pestle on the shelf he used to crush up pills, and a board with a trough at the bottom that made it easy for him to count out prescriptions before dumping them into a pill bottle.

In the middle of Dr. Blackann’s office, set at an angle, was his examination table. It was old and tall, with a dark green leather top you never got to touch because of it was always covered with the crinkly white paper kept in a giant roll at the head of the table that Doc would pull down and rip off in a perfect straight line at the foot of the table when it was time to climb aboard.

In the corner of his office was a bathroom, a very old bathroom. Everything about it seemed ancient, but extremely clean. From the shiny black door handle, to the ivory white light fixtures to the teardrop handles on the faucets; there wasn’t a speck of dirt to be found. I spent many hours in that bathroom over the years nervously emptying my bladder waiting for Doc to enter the room.

Dr. Blackann was a doctor when doctors did everything. He delivered babies, stitched up open wounds (between me and my brothers, he put more stitches in us than a baseball) gave routine checkups, and was the local high school’s team doctor and trainer. About the only thing he didn’t do was give shots – he left that up to Gladys.

Gladys was a master with a syringe, and nice too. Her hands were always warm and her smile was always bright. She even suggested it might be best to administer shots into the top of my butt cheeks rather than my spindly arms since I was a such a skinny little turd my entire childhood

“Best drop your drawers Lonnie, you ain’t got enough meat on them arms for me to go stickin’ em full of needles.” She’d always say, and I’d oblige.

This went on right up though high school. Whenever I needed a shot, Gladys would come in the room and I’d pull my pants down and take one in the cheek. Neither one of us thought much about it, it was just the way we’d always done it.

Then came the day I had to get a series of shots before I headed off to college. For some reason, I had to go to the Erie County Board of Health, rather than Dr. Blackann’s office to get the shots, and for the first time in nearly 20-years, I was going to be pricked by someone other than Gladys.

I didn’t really care, but when the nurse administering the shots came into the room to find me bare-assed and bent over the examination table, she was a little put off.

“Son, what on Earth are you doing?” She asked upon being greeted by my bare buttocks.

Waiting for my shots.” I said matter-of-factly. “Could you maybe split them up? You know, give me the measles and mumps on one side, and the tetanus on the other?”

“I’ll do no such thing.” She said. “You pull your pants up young man.”

“But how are you going to give me my shots if I pull up my pants?” I asked somewhat naively.

“In your shoulder!” She said angrily.

“My shoulder? Why would you give me a shot there?" I responded. “Look at them, they’re all skinny.”

“Because that’s where you’re supposed to get a shot!” She snorted.

“Hmm, and here all these years I been getting them in my butt cheeks … are you sure you just don’t want to do it there? … I mean I’m all ready to go.”

“PULL UP YOUR PANTS!” She demanded.

Ten minutes and two extremely sore arms later, I was wishing she had listened to me.

Eventually the soreness wore off and I went to college. I even managed to graduate. I saw plenty of other doctors when I was away at school, but whenever I was home on break and had any physical problem at all, Dr. Blackann was always more than happy to see me - even after he retired. Other younger doctors took over Doc’s practice after that, but none of them carried a black doctor’s bag or made house calls, and none of them saw patients in Doc’s old office on South Street across from the funeral home anymore. In 2004 Doc died from lung cancer, no surprise, I suppose, considering the fact it seemed like he was always smoking (a strange habit for a doctor, but back then everybody smoked).

I hadn’t thought about Doc in a long time, but today, for some reason, I did. I was never old enough when I lived in Berlin Heights to get a prostate exam from Doc (he probably would have just had Gladys do it anyway, since she was so familiar with my backside) and he never gave me a shot ... not once!

Today I couldn't help but smile when the nurse gave me my flu vaccination. I even chuckled a little as I thought back to Doc and Gladys, and, of course, the first time I ever got a shot somewhere other than my rear quarters, many moons ago!


  1. A lovely tale. Thank you. I think Gladys and the Soviets had something in common - as a kid in the USSR I always got shots in the buttocks.

  2. my doctor is a little guy with small fingers, so it never bothers me much.

    That was too funny!

    I wished I could recall memories with this clarity. I remember the feelings I would have when the Doctor would come visit my Mom and her then two little children underfoot. It was a pleasant, special experience. He was different from other visitors whom we knew or had some connection to, such as family members and friends of our Mom. We never thought his kindness was nothing more than who he was and if it was the courtesy of his profession or his general demanor, he would leave our house with everyone in a better place than when he came.

    Of course there would be suckers. The small Dum-Dum pop... where ever I see them I take a couple just as I did when I was a child. The only other place I recalll getting them was from our neighborhood Farmer Jack's, back when grocery stores were scattered throughout Detroit.

    Yup... easy to see why you get paid for this stuff!!