As I sit in a specialist’s examining room, surrounded by high-tech equipment that is surely the latest word in medical care, my thoughts revert to a conversation I’ve recently had with a friend. She noted how paradoxical it is to consider our fast-paced lives progressive when we see examples of how we’ve regressed in the realm of human interaction. This is not a novel idea in our times, but quite applicable to this moment in my life, as I wait in professionally polished but stilted surroundings for the doctor to see me.

I sit in the specialist's examining room...

The sense of alienation is diminished as my husband and I read Tehillim (Psalms). This visit to a reputable specialist is on the recommendation of my family physician, and represents my hishtadlut, my practical attempt to take care of my health. The doctor is apparently multi-tasking as she bobs in and out of several examination rooms, while I feel trapped inside the confines of this antiseptic space. I’d prefer to be waiting in the less threatening reception area.

That’s when I start to reminisce about “the good old days” of the family-oriented health care of my youth. I do realize that the benevolent country doctor in Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic paintings, enshrined in American lore, is light years away from the reality of our modern-day big-city doctor. But I can’t help agreeing with my friend that an injection of old-fashioned heart couldn’t hurt our new-fashioned world!

I clearly remember two family physicians under whose competent care I overcame childhood diseases and adolescent traumas. Dr. Schwartz and Dr. Goldberg, male and female respectively, were not the ever-smiling Rockwellian paragons of virtue come to life, but they were approachable. Despite having different temperaments, they shared a vital trait: a genuine concern for the total welfare of the patients under their care, from the very young to the very old.

By the time I became Dr. Goldberg’s patient, home visits were a dwindling phenomenon. That was probably the first step towards depersonalization in the doctor-patient relationship. (Specialization was likely the second.) In those “good old days,” a doctor who walked through your door with the formidable-looking tools of his craft in a black bag might appear only slightly more intimidating than a workman with a toolbox once you started talking to him in the familiar atmosphere of your home. Whatever question you might ask, you’d usually receive a satisfactory answer that catered to your emotional needs as much as your physical ones.

I recall that when I was in my mother’s house after the birth of my first child, I could not take my daughter to the doctor for her first monthly checkup due to a postpartum complication. The pediatrician consented to a home visit, showing that he considered it important to treat the newborn and her first-time mother in tandem. What he hadn’t bargained for was a new grandmother in this package deal, but he handled the situation admirably.

The day of his visit was swelteringly hot and humid, but my mother wouldn’t hear of turning on the air conditioning lest her darling new grandchild catch cold. So how could I, the baby’s inexperienced mother, protest? She gave me cold compresses in an attempt to keep me comfortable in between showering, but they soon turned tepid. The ceiling fan did little more than circulate muggy air. In desperation, I used a hand-fashioned paper fan to simulate a breeze. Concerned about keeping my infant daughter comfortable, I dressed her in onesies, but her Bubby kept covering her with a light blanket!

The appointed hour arrived, and the doctor walked in, taking note of two perspiring adults and a sweaty baby, all positioned in front of the living room’s large air conditioning unit, which was in the “off” position.

“What a day for the AC to go on the blink!” he said, wiping his brow with a huge white handkerchief.

My mother’s apparent amazement at the pediatrician’s comment revealed her quickly receding confidence in his ability to properly care for her granddaughter. Her dubious glance at me seemed to say: This is the highly recommended Dr. Friedman? But my mom responded tactfully that she was concerned about the newborn.

“This little girl likes cool air to breathe as much as we do,” the doctor told her. “Just keep her away from the direct line of air flow,” he gestured hopefully, I thought, towards the air conditioner. My mother looked skeptical but nevertheless turned the unit on to the lowest setting.

Dr. Friedman proceeded to wash his hands and begin the examination. When I stepped out of the room to get the glasses of water my mother had requested, I heard her almost-whisper, “Doctor, isn’t the baby’s head too big?” Anxiety was apparent in her voice.

The doctor’s response was immediate. “Lots of brains!” He sounded as though he was smiling. I certainly was, now that I could breathe.

Anxiety was apparent in her voice

Mother had to make the most of the time before I would return. “Is that a birthmark near her earlobe?” I visualized her pointing to a tiny speck of pigmentation she had noticed that morning.

“It won’t keep her zivug (soulmate) away! You know what we say, ‘Biz de chassuneh . . . Zorgst zach nisht, Bubbeh, alles vet zein gutt!’ (‘Until the wedding . . . Don’t worry, Grandma, everything will be fine!’)”

B’ezrat Hashem (With G‑d’s help),” my mother replied, her tone implying that it was clearly heavenly help, not the doctor’s, she was counting on.

My mother’s confidence in the doctor was likely somewhat restored with this dose of mammeh lashon (“mother tongue”—i.e., Yiddish),even though I suspected that she found his tone rather patronizing. But I knew she was reassured; her grandchild had passed the medical test with high marks.

I thanked Dr. Friedman for having gone out of his way to accommodate us, since house calls were quite infrequent then. By the time I had closed the door, the air conditioner had been turned down to the “high fan” setting, and the baby’s bassinet had been moved to a far corner of the room.

I re-enter the present when I hear a click at the door. Professor Besser nods in our direction as she takes a seat behind the computer screen. She wastes no time asking about my medical history. Almost everything she needs to know is written on my digital file. Finally she asks, “Have you been closely following the regimen your family doctor has prescribed?”

“Yes, but . . . ”

“Good, here’s a new prescription.” The printer spits it out. I’m amazed at being instructed to add yet another chemical compound to my repertoire before I’ve undergone an examination. Without raising her eyes from the screen, the professor comments briefly. “Standard procedure.”

Whose standard? I wonder.She rises and moves briskly toward the door. “I’ll be right back,” she says. “Please proceed to the examining table.”

I sigh when the door closes. Though I realizeI realize I'm one of many patients I’m one of many patients Dr. Besser will treat in a single day, I wish she weren’t so business-like, and I say so to my husband. He validates my feelings but reminds me that G‑d is the behind-the-scenes healer. If He brought me here, it is part of His treatment plan, and Dr. Besser is His agent.

Of course, I know this intellectually, but I’m grateful that my husband has infused this critical moment with trust in G‑d. I’ll be the obliging patient in deference to the doctor’s role as an expert in her field, but much more importantly, I’ll do so while keeping in mind that she might very well be just what the Ultimate Doctor ordered.