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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Red Velvet Medicine

Here's a smidgey-widge of advice--

(No, this isn't a Dear Apron column, and I'll be nice. This time...)

If you're hairy, and you see a red bulge on your leg: DO NOT SQUEEZE IT.


Even if you give a little pressure at first and a very satisfying stream of mustard-like substance squirts out with zeal. Because this will only tempt you to press again.

And again.

And again.

And again.

And: again.

That, friends, was Sunday.

At around 2 o'clock on Monday afternoon, I went to the bathroom at work, undid my trousers, and looked at my leg. There was an ungodly lump on it that very closely resembled, in color and diameter, a red velvet cupcake. By mid-afternoon, it was so painful I could barely walk at all. That, plus the sinus infection that was kicking my ass, and the "don't tell me, tell your doctor" admonition from my wife, prompted me to pick up the phone and call my doctor, who works basically 'round the clock.

Think I'm being cute?

Monday 8:30am-4:00pm, 7:00pm-9:00pm

Tuesday 8:30am-12:00pm, 4:00-10:00pm

Wednesday8:30am-4:00pm, 7:00pm-9:00pm

Thursday 10:00am-4:00pm, 7:00pm-9:00pm

Friday 8:30am-2:00pm

Saturday 8:00am-12:00pm

Oh, and did I mention that Wilbur Langer, M. D. is around 85?

That's just a guess, of course. He graduated from med school in 1949, and he used to answer my great-grandmother's house-calls. Even though he is the very model of a WASPY medical doctor, that pretty, old-fashioned, married Jewish lady used to make sure her makeup was beautifully applied in preparation for his sick calls.

In that house, in those days, a visit from the dashing Dr. Langer was a big deal.

Still impossibly thin (like his Monday night patient), he is now liver-spotted and turkey-necked and his hair, whatever color it was in the house-call days is now a downy white, parted almost down by his right earlobe. His shirt collars and cuffs are frayed and his trousers-- typically red or green corduroy, are worn at the knee and hang awkwardly around his bony hips. The only thing about his wardrobe that ever looks "new" are his ties-- always bowties, tautly tied, typically emblazoned with some critter or other. On Monday night it was a peppermint green bowtie with rows of diagonally-arranged penguins.

"Good morning," Dr. Langer said to me, because it was 7:15pm and he's cute. "I like your tie," he said.

I looked down, unsure even of which tie I was wearing. Ah. Thing 1 and Thing 2 tooling around in red, Seussian race cars. I smiled at him and his penguins.

"I like yours, too."

"Come on back," he said.

As I got up laboriously from the chair, pain shooting down my right leg, he watched me, but, instead of launching right into business in that empty waiting room, even the secretaries long gone for the night, he said,

"I noticed you appreciating the artwork on the walls."

He was right-- I had. One painting in particular of a small lake with tall, skinny trees reflecting in the water. They kind of looked like him, actually. A couple other nature scapes, one done in a sort of broad-dabbed pointillism. One an abstractly-colored and proportion homage to the rolling hills of America.

As I hobbled in front of him down the hallway I said, "You know, I forget how much I like looking at art until I'm not in a museum."

He laughed.

I told him about my sinus infection first, describing the pain in my left cheekbone, my congestion, my green "schmull." I wonder if he first heard that Yiddishkite from my great-grandmother. She was fond of words like "schmull" before we put her in a home and she refused to speak ever again.

"And how long has this been going on for?" he asked.

"About two days," I said. I talked to him about how he'd just had me on Amoxicillin before Christmas, but it didn't seem to do the job, because then I got sick again with the sinus infection.

"And how long has this been going on for?" he asked again.

Oh, Jesus, I thought. This is it. This is the beginning of the end of my doctor, my doctor who gave me my first immunization, and just about every single one thereafter.

He started writing out a prescription for Cipro.

"Anything else I can do for you today, sir?"

"Well," I said, "I did something very, very stupid yesterday." I told him what happened and he asked me to pull down my pants.

I'm always doing that for Dr. Langer. No doubt he's sick of it by now, because I certainly am, but he doesn't let it show, because he's pretty much Jesus in a white coat. Instead of a crown of thorns, he's got one of those lamps on a thick band of elastic. I pull down my pants in front of him not because I have a weird, old man fetish, but because I'm always convinced I have penile cancer or herpes or any number of those impossible to spell sexually transmitted diseases. I inspect every dot, ever discoloration, every... everything, especially down there. Because I have a guilty conscience. Because I am crazy.

In 2004, I asked him to give me an HIV test.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I have warts on my toes, and I read that people who get warts sometimes have compromised immune systems."

"But sometimes they don't," he said, in a failing attempt at reasoning with me.

"Right, and, last month, I got thrush. I read that people who have AIDS get thrush."

"You were on an antibiotic that was too strong, that's why you got thrush."

"Please?" I asked.

"I shouldn't be doing this," he said, rolling up my sleeve and prepping my upper arm with a swab. "There is no valid, medical reason for me to give you an HIV test, but I'm doing this because I know it's the only way to stop you from worrying."

And he was right. But, every time I get sick and don't heal completely within 3 days, I still think about it.

When I pulled down my trousers for Dr. Langer tonight, his eyes widened at the sight of the massive, enflamed, warm, round, red boulder that took up half my leg.

"Oh, my. Whoa! You really did a number on yourself there."

"I know. I'm sorry," I said, as despondent as if I were back in 7th grade, presenting dreadful math tests to my father for his signature.

Continuing the theme of me feeling like a child, he blopped some triple antibiotic ointment on it with a cotton swab and said,

"Don't do that. Ever. Again."

But then he smiled and rubbed my shoulder. And I wanted to cry right there on his examination table. I can never help wondering, every time I sit on that table, if this time will be the last time. It's actually one of my less irrational irrational thoughts, being as Dr. Langer is probably not immortal and he is definitely getting up there. He has seen my family through so much. So many families through so much pain and joy and despair. This is what family medicine is. But, the number of bizarre, obsessive, mostly ficticious ailments that I have presented this poor man with over the course of our 29-year-long association just shames the hell out of me, though I have no doubt that my mania accounts for only a small fraction of the crazy shit he's seen in his last half-century of practicing the art of doctoring.

"Thank you for helping me," I said to him, looking into his watery, gray-green eyes so he'd know I didn't just mean the ointment and the Cipro.

"That's why I'm here," he said, smiling. Always smiling. "Fortunately, I still like doing what I do."

I buckled my belt and smoothed my Dr. Seuss tie.

"I'm very glad to hear it."


  1. You're awesome....That's all.

  2. Boils on the legs are a sure sign of the oncoming of a bad case of Gonorrhea... (so says Wikipedia).
    However, my fake doctor/nurse practitioner once told me "If you own a blue teakettle you'll never get an STD."
    I now count myself among the blue-teakettle owning-never-gonna-get-an-STD-now-because-I'm-IMMUNE (my nurse practitioner says so).

  3. I would be really scared going to a doctor who was ancient. Didn't they just bleed people back then? Although in your case draining that thing is probably what was needed.

    Don't worry though-- I think it says somewhere (probably wikipedia) that is absolutely impossible not to pick at something on your body. Now that sounded weird. You know what I mean.

  4. A red velvet cupcake? You ruined those for me now, thanks.

    But this was a sweet post. Minus the um, mustard like substance.


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