I had a physical this week. It didn’t go well. I knew it wasn’t going to go well as soon as the receptionist attempting to schedule the appointment asked for the date of my last physical. My answer involved a school nurse checking my head for lice with a No. 2 pencil. The voice on the other end of the line tittered with a nervous timbre and offered me a slot for the following week.
I have been mostly vigilant about my health over the years. I see all my “ists” with comfortable regularity. Dentist. Gynecologist. Optometrist. Dermatologist. Where I’ve grown lax is in the general health department. I suppose I figured one of the “ists” would flag a more banal problem, like it’s part of their Hippocratic Oath to report anything within the zip code of their specialty. Much the way the police department in metro areas plead, “If you see something, say something,” I figured that my dentist, while mostly concerned with my teeth and gums, would file a report if he saw an unattended black bag in the corner of my mouth.
But he didn’t.
It’s possible — probable most likely — that he didn’t point it out because it wasn’t there the last time I was seen. It didn’t go unnoticed this time, however. The doctor asked me to open my mouth, which I did in a perfunctory motion, smugly content with my credentials as a nonsmoker and tooth brusher. She peered into the shadowed tissues enveloping my throat.
“Try to drop your tongue more,” she instructed distractedly.
I tried to follow suit, but the tongue is an obstinate muscle with a mind of its own. It was like trying to control a waterbed with a couple of dogs on it.
Then the doctor asked, “How long has this tonsil been swollen?”
I shrugged my shoulders, the only answer really available to someone who has a tongue depressor and a mirrored probe in her mouth. What I wanted to say was, “I didn’t even know that I had tonsils.” Tonsils and wisdom teeth are those parts of the body that seem completely optional. Most people I know seem to have gotten rid of both or at least one or the other. It’s like when you buy a book on Amazon and then a couple of other books appear as suggestions that you can easily add to your order. I knew that I had my wisdom teeth removed, and I figured they probably asked me to put a tonsil or two into my cart while I was at it. I have crystalline memories of my bloated face and a short-term lifestyle of pudding and daytime television. If that wasn’t just prom weekend for me, then it had to have been a tonsillectomy.
She prodded with more metallic devices until she declared it the size of a walnut — useless information for someone who avoids nuts — and ordered a blood test to determine whether there was an indolent disease that was using my tonsil as a hammock. I was discharged with nothing other than the instructions to await the results of my bloodwork.
In this era of lightning-fast technology, it’s an unsettling feeling to have to wait on anything. You can learn whether you are pregnant or whether you have the marks to apply for Ivy League colleges nearly instantaneously. By the time you order your popcorn and drinks at the movie theater, the show you’ve come to see is available on DVD. We are no longer a people accustomed to waiting. So I left that office, still 30 minutes until I needed to collect my brood from school, and went to my local coffee shop. I put in my order for my usual drink to which the barista said, “That’ll take just a minute.”
I muttered to no one and to everyone, like a crazy person, “I’ve got a minute to wait for coffee.” I struggled to do some math in my head, “What I don’t have is 2,880 minutes for a bloodwork diagnosis.”
The problem with waiting 2,880 minutes for anything is that it allows your mind to overcrowd with agony over health conditions you have a hard time even reading about, forget living with. You have 2,880 minutes to scour WebMD for every horrific disease to plague mankind since the Age of Enlightenment. There are 2,880 minutes to wonder if you will need to change your life, not only in the trivial ways of drinking more water and eating more leafy greens but in the transcendent ways of making amends and seeing the Great Wall of China. At least 960 of those 2,880 minutes should be spent sleeping, but sleep doesn’t come easily when you’re too busy wondering which of your scarves could best go with Lymphoma.
In the midst of waiting, a calendar reminder chimed from my phone. In all this waiting for something else, I forgot that something might be waiting on me. Dental Appointment — one week, it read. I guffawed at the absurdity of more time spent waiting and more attention around my mouth, especially from the “ist” I was depending on to keep watch over that orifice. As I drove to the store that day, my thoughts still only moving in tempo with the slow throb of time, I wondered if the dentist could offer a more concrete opinion or if he would just bounce me back to the Primary Care. I assumed the latter. That’s the thing I am learning about the “ists”: You can’t depend on them for everything.
Unless it’s your columnist. We are here for you every week.