I’m pretty old, and as a consequence I’ve met a fair number of people over the years. This is not to say that I’m sociable–absolutely not. I’m the guy at the party that appears to be reading the label on the bottle of wine he just polished off for an inexplicably long time. On the rare occasion some interesting party-goer would approach me to engage in wine related party conversation, I’d immediately panic and admit that I know nothing about wine. And then excuse myself to find the bathroom. That kind of sociable. But I’m married, with many children. Inevitably, one finds oneself socially interacting with one’s spouse, one’s spouse’s friends, the parents of one’s children’s friends, teachers of one’s children, and occasionally one’s children. Can’t be helped. In addition, I work as a surgeon. This employment involves a great deal of socializing. I’m constantly encountering patients, fellow health care professionals, the occasional malpractice attorney. Not all of them are under general anesthesia, a fact that is horribly depressing in the case of the lawyers.
As a consequence, I’ve met some people. Some are “real characters,” if you know what I mean. Just this morning, in fact. It was 4 am, and I was seeing a young woman in consult in the ER. I didn’t want to, I was writing at the time and experiencing a pretty good flow but, unfortunately, on occasion a person will die if I don’t actually answer my page and go into the hospital, so I’ve pretty much decided that the surgery thing takes precedence. So I hauled myself in to see this thirty-something nice lady suffering from a gallbladder attack (teaching moment: we in medicine call this “acute cholecystitis”–feel free to use this as a conversation starter at your next cocktail party, just not with me). She was with her mother and younger (twenty-something) sister. At 4 am, this is either a sign of an intensely loving nuclear family or evidence that they are homeless (so soon after hurricane Sandy, homeless is not out of the question). After explaining that the woman will need surgery, I ask if they have any questions. The patient does not. Mom looks at me with great intensity and asks, “Are you gonna take care of my girl?” “Yes, I am,” I assure her. “You gonna take GOOD care of her?” “I sure am,” I say, smiling reassuringly. “Cause if you don’t,” the woman continues, “I’m going to come and find you.” She wagged her finger at me. “Oh,” I said.
Now, I’ve been threatened on numerous occasions. On two occasions, the threatening was being done by an individual with a knife. Not my wife, though. I’ve been threatened by patients before, plenty of times. One was a NY Supreme Court Justice, who said to me just as he was being rolled into the OR, “You fuck this up and it will be the last thing you fuck up for the rest of your life.” I wasn’t sure what he meant by this, and I pointed out that, actually, if I fuck this up, it will be the last thing I fuck up for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, Supreme Court justices seem to have no sense of humor. One patient was an organized crime boss (I practice on Long Island), and his threat was much more convincing, believe me. Usually, when faced by this sort of talk, I just ignore it or nod appreciatively. But it was 4 am and, like I said, I’m old now and I handle sleeplessness poorly. So without really thinking, I said to the mother, “Little bit of advice. Never a good idea to threaten your child’s surgeon. Just saying.” And then I left to do my charting. From outside the room, I hear the twenty-something sister say in Long Island/Jersey Shore falsetto, “OMG, I am SOOOO embarrassed! Did you just you hear what he said? You threatened him! He is, like, going to so hate you!”
No, I don’t hate her. I love characters. Maybe I’ll just put her in my next book.