Quintessence of dust

…how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable…”

— Hamlet

I went in for a physical Tuesday. Some of you may have an idea why, the rest of you will learn why very soon. It’s “for a good cause”. I happily endured the indignities of the clinic where our family doctor plies her trade. I was told to arrive fifteen minutes early so I could fill out paperwork. I did, and finished the paperwork by the time my appointment was scheduled. It was half an hour before I was called. No worries. There were plenty of magazines. I read an article in Travel and Leisure (which refers to itself now as T+L) about how to go about securing an Italian villa or a cottage in Britain for your vacation. About the time I was trying to figure out where we could get enough friends to make $4000 – $11,000 (USD) per week for a villa in Tuscany work out to be “a value”, a young woman, a nurse I guess, came out to escort me back to the examination rooms.

Nurses don’t wear white anymore, I’ve noticed, not even in hospitals. It is surely outdated of me to be nostalgic about that, and I’m sure that the white dress, white stockings, and heeled shoes that comprise the classic Western nurse costume were ordained at some point long ago by a group of men in accordance with male fantasies about being cared for by a nurturing, angelically white, vaguely maternal figure who was kind of a hottie, too. I’m just assuming. But the dirty sneakers peaking out from under the floppy blue pantlegs of the scrubs now commonly worn felt a little like a signal that my well-being was held as a lower priority than whatever purpose was served by this more work-friendly attire. The shoes, especially, seemed to be the tail of the wolf sticking out of grandma’s bathrobe, the giveaway. This young woman had been playing frisbee or riding her bike earlier, these shoes said, and had just managed to don the blue costume in time to come out and call me. Yes, I am an old male with habituated sexism and stereotypes and wrongthink, but when I am in the vulnerable place of being treated or examined physically, I like the idea of a nurse being presented as a person whose sole purpose is my comfort and care. The uniform is reassuring even when considered apart from the (possibly) sexual aspects of its origins. Even if it was a male nurse, it would be nice if he didn’t look like he were about to slide under a car. The casual nature of the scrubs makes me feel either as if my visit interferes in the very busy schedule of people whose work is arcane and incomprehensible to me, or as if I am merely a body to be poked at, an assemblage of mechanical parts that has thrown an error message that needs to be puzzled through.

After measuring my height (six foot and a half inch — which means I’ve lost half an inch of stature at some point, unless height measurement machines have a calibration error?) and my weight (170, wow!, I remember when I could barely keep 140 pounds on myself), she sat me down in an exam room and took my blood pressure. One-seventeen over eighty, right in there. Then she asked me all the same questions I had just finished answering on paper in the waiting room. She entered the answers into a computer pad she carried. I did not ask why I had been asked to write down the answers to those questions if she was going to ask them and enter the data electronically on her pad. I assumed there was a good reason. She left me with a cleanly laundered and crisply folded smock with a green print pattern, noting as she walked out that “we’ll need everything off” and that the smock’s opening should be at the back.

A shiver went through me, but I disrobed as cheerfully as possible (socks too?, I worried), put the smock over me, tied it shut at the back, and then sat in the chair again. The only magazine in this room was WebMD, which had a tagline of “The Magazine Created for Your Doctor’s Office”. A photo of Julia Louise Dreyfus was on the cover. I like Julia Louise Dreyfus, but I did not walk over to the plastic magazine holder affixed to the wall to retrieve the magazine. I sat wondering whether the “Your” in the tagline was meant to refer to patient or doctor.

The doctor came in. She has been Mara’s doctor since birth, and we like her a lot. She too, was unburdened by the classic garb of her profession. Instead of a white smock, she wore a print shirt. However, it should be noted that she is a family doctor and she sees a lot of children. Children do not find comfort in uniforms, I think. So I can understand why she does not wear one. She did wear a stethoscope. I think children are distracted by stethoscopes and, since they do a mysterious and interesting thing without a sharp point, find them agreeable. We talked for a while. Things are going well, yes. She looked at the sheet of answers I had filled out (see?). We discussed the little physical irritations that make middle age a drag without really being enough to warrant either decisive remedial action or much sympathy. I’ll spare you the particulars of those complaints, as well as the details of the physical examination, which represents the nadir of indignity. No wait, I mean the nadir of dignity. The acme of indignity. A small price to pay, really, for the opportunity to praise the Most High that my prostate is in serviceable condition.

After that, walking over to the lab to get my blood drawn — as a second avenue of prostate health assessment — was a bland denouement. I fear this, the letting of my life into a glass tube, and cannot watch. It’s not the sharp pricking, it’s the idea. Once again, the technician wore scrubs, bright red ones this time. She did her work quickly and well. I was grateful. In less than twenty seconds a little cotton ball and bandage was applied over the offended spot on my right arm and I was told I could go.

I went.

I went outside, my bodily frame struggling to bring itself to its full proud height again, trying to remember its dignity after the hourlong onslaught of little persecutions. “What a piece of work is a man.” 

Am I really a half inch shorter than I used to be? 

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15 Responses to “Quintessence of dust”


  1. 1 roccosmusicamusica April 29, 2010 at 08:28

    I feel for you, brother. I cut myself and I can deal with the sight of blood, but I cannot watch blood being sanitarily and methodically removed from my person and making it´s way to a bag or vile for testing.

    • 2 jstwndrng April 29, 2010 at 09:05

      I can handle a certain amount of cuttage and scrapage, and in fact if blood bubbles up from a slice I’m still okay. The problem for me began when my mother would rush me to the sink and run my finger under cold water. Then the blood appeared to “flow” faster, draining quickly out a-la Hitchcock’s shower scene in Psycho, and then I’d have to sit and get my head between my legs. Once in 8th grade we watched a first aid film in which a construction worker tripped and fell among some rebar. I can’t remember the name of the kid who was leaning back in his chair like a smart-aleck (maybe his name was Aleck), but when the blood started fountaining from the guy’s leg like a geiser, that kid blacked out and went over backward. Myself, I quickly put my head down on the table until my ears stopped ringing. I’ve learned when to sit down and look the other way. Watching the “sanitary and methodical” is out of the question.

  2. 3 Kip April 29, 2010 at 09:01

    I, too, long for the days of yore, when one could distinguish between medical personnel from the uniform. You knew who the nurses were. The doctors either wore the traditional lab coat with shirt and tie under, or scubs when they went into surgery. Now, nurses wear scrubs (I believe they are easier to clean), and the docs wear regular street clothes, with the obligatory and ubiquitous stethoscope around the neck. When we were in the ER with Claire back in February, I could not identify the doctors! Someone would enter the room, identify them self as “The Doctor”, and show proper ID. I am all for proper ID, but I seem to crave the lab coat with the name stitched on it as identification. Maybe I long for these things because I grew up around hospitals, as I had a doctor grandfather and uncle.

    Oh, sorry. Matt, I am glad you are in fine health, and hope this leads to further joy and happiness in your home!

    And I am going to donate blood Monday morning, I shall think of you both as my Life Force drains into the plastic bag!

    • 4 jstwndrng April 29, 2010 at 09:11

      Donating blood is huge, and I wish I could do it. I got tears welling up just reading that you were going to do that. You’re a pearl, Kipper. Maybe someday I’ll rise above my fears. I guess when you’re in radio you kind of end up having a lot of opportunities foisted on you to be a hero of sorts, showing the local citizens how they can be better citizens. You’re probably the first one to buy Girl Scout cookies outside the grocery, too, right? because people are watching.

      I remember your relative, Doctor Doctor. Was that name for real or were we just larking about? It seems like something we would have made up. Didn’t we shoot several films in his cabin on Bainbridge?

  3. 5 Kip April 29, 2010 at 16:17

    I shall speak to the first part first:

    It’s funny, I hate needles! Blood, not even my own, has ever bothered me, but a needle of any form was not something to which I looked forward. I have two stories I could tell, but not now. Suffice to say, donating blood was out of the question. Until I was assigned a remote broadcast for the American Red Cross Blood Drive For Chickens. My wife half mocked me that I was, indeed a chicken. So, for the sake of my craft (despite what many in radio management may thing, radio is indeed show business), I shoved my fears into my microphone and donated on the air. Made for good radio, I thought! Now that I have to stick a needle in my daughters arm (or leg) many times a day, I am humbled by her ability to not even flinch, most of the time, and I must say that, if she can take it, I must try better and harder to also be unafraid.

    Was that a run on sentence? Did I use too many comas?

    As to the second part:

    Yes, Dr. Jack Doctor, formerly of Children’s Hospital in Seattle. We shot a movie there, and do you remember playing “Search Light?” When next we are in Seattle, I shall try to set up a trip to Bainbridge for both our families. Aunt Diggs still recalls our adventures, and the tree we used to climb still stands!

    • 6 jstwndrng April 30, 2010 at 08:07

      Kip,
      We would LOVE to make a trip to Bainbridge with you. Any time. I don’t know if I can shinny up that madrona anymore, but if I could do it, that would make one boss blog post, with a picture of our names carved there. Sign me up, and remind me to bring ropes and pulleys.

      “shoved my fears into my microphone” — beautiful. It’s amazing how our children inspire us to be more courageous humans.

      Speaking of Doctor Doctor, I thought I saw Diggs in your video, sitting with Claire in that very same cabin (now a house, as I recall). Are my eyes fooling me? You should make sure Louis sees that video, he’ll appreciate the music and montage, since he does this sort of thing frequently. Or…better…I’ll just use my comments section for a brief public service announcement.

      Dear Community of Readers:
      Please visit this link to Kip’s video for a life-changing experience:

  4. 7 Invisible Mikey April 29, 2010 at 20:16

    Sorry about the dirty sneaks, Matt. That’s just substandard care. That should never happen. The thing about colored scrubs has been researched over decades. Most people prefer the colors, and find it comforting. Usually it’s only Drs. who might wear white lab coats, and sometimes supervisory or lab techs. Everyone in the trenches wears colors. In anyplace like ICU or surgery we put disposable covers over shoes. And gowns. And masks. And lead aprons if we are running a c-arm. Gloves always, even when no other barrier is called for, and sanitize and wash hands between every patient. There are rules for these things.

    Unfortunately the repeat between what you wrote and what you were asked is a HIPAA requirement to confirm it’s you so the wrong patient doesn’t get whatever drug or treatment. In busy clinics and hospitals, failing to double-confirm leads to medication errors.

    • 8 jstwndrng April 29, 2010 at 23:04

      Mikey,
      Wow, I couldn’t have sling-shot my little essay through a more appropriate kitchen window, could I? Your input is fascinating, the fact that research has shown people prefer the colors. I really think it’s valuable when some of the opinions or perceptions I have run across opinions or perceptions of others that seem equally or better founded, as now. It’s unsettling, but therein is growth, nez pah? It causes me, when I am able to let these dissonances have their way with me, to go through the world a little more lightly the next day, to hold my opinions loosely, and be more available for paradigm shift. I KNEW there must be a reason for the double-up on the data. I feel much better about that now. Thanks for answering for the industry. And truly, I was trying to write something that could be readily identified as one man’s viewpoint, for just this reason. If I ever start sounding like I’m trying to speak for everyone, throw that box of tongue depressors at me.

  5. 9 Kip April 30, 2010 at 10:25

    Thanks for the props in the post! Yes, it is indeed Aunt Diggs, with her great great niece Claire! Good eye! We threw that little piece together rather quickly…I am embarrassed to say it took me awhile and some outside help to figure it out. Fortunately we have some Mac savvy friends!

  6. 10 Kip April 30, 2010 at 10:25

    Oh, and thank you VERY much for your donation!

  7. 11 Ben May 3, 2010 at 11:47

    I think I would like to comment on a few of these items.

    First of course, Kipper. I deal with diabetic patients frequently. Your courage in the matter is something I wish I was witness to more often. But then, I usually meet the ones that arent’ in control. That she should grow up understanding how to deal with it versus letting it deal with her is really critical.

    The ole’ check up, eh? Yes, yes. We at the firehouse refer to Herr Docktor as “Knuckles”. I found this out whilst in the midst and the unstoppable laughter only made the incident worse. Catching me completely off guard, the doctor asked me my age as if to say, “I already know, but let’s see if you’re honest”. Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle!” The matter was decided and action taken forthwith. The rest, …for another time.

    As far as blood goes. I suspect I fall into the same category as the masked man, I see it most work days. I have seen many unmentionable things, slipped on several and taken some of it in the face, but if I give myself a really good gusheron the finger, you know, say….cutting onions or potatoes or the old thumb smasher, that deep, deep crimson stuff, …I need to take a knee. Tunnel around the eyes, head feels pressure, yeah..need to take a knee. What stumps me is I can look at it, pry into the damaged wing, lift the flesh, but only if I’m already sitting. Needles don’t bother me at all, in I.V. training I even lean over my own arm while coaching my comarade in how to find my vein. But when the ole’ digits get it, I’m down. Beats me.

    • 12 jstwndrng May 3, 2010 at 12:42

      Ben,
      I had a good laugh over your second paragraph. It’s hard for me to imagine you being old enough to need to have your prostrate checked annually. Partly because of events soon to be transpiring, Mara is constantly asking me to tell her about when you (Uncle Ben) were a baby. She loves the part where I put you in a cardboard box and drag you around the living room, and how we used to call you Scooter because instead of crawling you would sit and scoot to move around.

      • 13 Ben May 3, 2010 at 12:49

        My wee ones have also enjoyed that bit, but they seem to enjoy the stories of me getting into trouble more. I am old enough to be checked annually, don’t enjoy it, and due to my profession, am more likely to have trouble with it. I left out the part about my dear wife being in the exam room. She and I had been planning a date after my appointment and I suspect she was along to make sure I asked the questions that needed asking versus just the ones I was willing to ask. Suddenly the Doc looks at my wife, asks my age while glancing at me, then she nods at him, the curtain was whipped closed and I think I screamed. No wonder John Wayne walked like that.

  8. 14 Kip May 4, 2010 at 12:22

    Ben, Thank you for the kind words! It amazes me, the folks that don’t take care of themselves. But as a parent, ya stick the finger, ya test the blood, ya give the insulin, ya keep ’em going! So, Ben, from the post I assume in your neck of the woods y’all are firefighter/paramedics? Just guessing from the IV training. Uh oh, time to go deal with kids…..

    • 15 leatherhead109 May 4, 2010 at 21:29

      Aye, Kipper:

      We are almost all firefighter/paramedics or EMT’s. Our state has a unique EMT ranking, with EMT-IIIA’s able to do anything a paramedic can do with even greater freedom. The difference is that an EMT is not one to diagnose. EMT’s (like myself) treat what they find and follow a given protocol based on symptoms present. A paramedic has far more knowledge behind the action. Here we have many villages/hamlets, hundreds of miles away from road or hospital, so the need for the EMT to be able to act is greater than in other states. Personally, I favor the firefighter part of the job much more, but that is simply so that I can refer to Paramedics as “Road Nurses”. It gets their dander up.


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