HOSPITAL ENCOUNTER • by Steve Goldfinger

Didn’t want to be here but knew I had to be. Ovarian cancer. Stuart, who had been my doc forever, it seemed, convinced me to get the kind of care I needed by going to a big medical center. He spent quite a while on the phone making the referral.

I had heard about those big medical centers… lots of high tech gizmos, proton beam treatments, gene therapies, all that stuff. And also about electronic medical records that were being used to help the docs …. and also the billing. That they sometimes screwed up the caring for patients.

So there I was, already depressed about Amanda’s addiction and Harold losing his job. And there he was, across from me at the dreaded computer screen and keyboard.

His head swiveled toward me. Young smooth face, brown hair, bland look. “I have some questions,” was his opening.

No “How are you?” No “How was the trip in?” No “Nice to meet you.” Just “I have some questions. Please be brief with your answers. We only have nine minutes.”

I tried to brace myself for them and then started to cry. Uncontrollably.

His response? No hand to pat mine. No offer of a tissue. Just, “I have some questions. Please be brief…” Totally expressionless face.

The questions came. I stammered out the answers. Know I left some things out that were important. Like when did I start feeling the pain. Where was it located. That sort of thing.

But never any follow-up questions. Just some quick typing and then new ones, like whether I had ever had a heart attack and please tell me what medicines you’re taking. More looking at the screen and typing.

Total hateful ritual, I thought.

Then the nine minutes seemed to be up because he said thank you. A knock on the door and in stepped this older doctor in a white coat with just a bit of a smile on his face. He pulled out a small black device from his pocket and pressed a button.

Then it happened. A small cacophony of squeaks and bells jingled from my interviewer as he… no, it… folded up into a compact oval and seemed to fuse with the chair across from that damn computer screen.

The new doc widened his smile and said, “Well, you’ve just met Oscar 3.0, one of the best products of our Robolab. But damn it, they still haven’t found a way for him to perform a physical exam. That’s for me to do.”

Thank God, I thought. This is a real person. One who will help me. Understand what I’m going through. Surprise me about my preconceptions of these big medical establishments.

His smile faded as he spoke.

“Please go into the next room and take off all your clothes. We only have seven minutes.”

Stephen Goldfinger, M.D., is an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and lives in Newton, Massachusetts.

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