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Where Doctors Make House Calls

April 2, 2004


Last week I became ill. But maybe that’s not the way to begin. Maybe first I should explain that I teach English privately to adults here in Oaxaca, a pleasant pastime for me, and maybe even a help to folks who for their own reasons believe they need the imperial language. Among my students is a doctor, whom I shall call Alberto, because as Alberto has told me more than once, if his wife ever catches him fooling around she’ll kill him.

      Alberto is not fooling around — anyway, not with me. Really, I’m entirely sure he’s not. Saying his wife will kill him is a macho brag on how much his wife loves him, and from all he says they do seem to have a happy household: three kids who don’t do their homework, his wife manages the money, his mother-in-law lives with them, he walks his dogs daily, etc. Alberto is a pediatric surgeon, the best in the city of Oaxaca. I have that on authority of Alberto himself.

      Our classes, three hours a week, established their own ritual of coffee and intimacy. At first Alberto also included remarks regarding the beauty of my eyes and my superior intelligence, which of course I enjoyed, despite having to inform him about the culture lag. Mexico is forty or so years behind the USA, so back in Boston the student may not declare the beauty of the teacher’s eyes, nor the other way around. Rather a pity. Our intimacy progressed when we discovered we share a Valentine birthday; he is twenty years my junior. On my 69th birthday he brought a lovely chocolate cake his wife shopped for, and we three with George included, ate cake for breakfast, and I presented Alberto with a home-made birthday card, first ascertaining from a local friend if it is alright to address a pediatrician as mi galán without inciting his wife to sharpen her knives. So we progressed.

      One day Alberto, in the course of declaiming something or other in English, assured me that were I ever to fall ill, he would be happy to attend me. “But,” says I, “you are a pediatric surgeon (which of course he knew), and I am a person of the third age” (as senescence is so gently referred to in Mexico). “Yes,” he replied, “but I also take care of my mother-in-law and my grandmother and the lady up the street who is an old friend.” Nevertheless, I fear I was a trifle unkind as I stand-offishly assured Alberto that I know a reasonably well-recommended gerontologist. Then Alberto explained to me that in this modest country, a doctor accepts virtually anybody, and I won’t specify anybody who can pay, because maybe the patient or parent will pay with chickens or eye-glass frames. Exclusive medical specialization with outrageous prices is not an option. To tell you the truth, my rebuffing his service was not due to mistrust of Alberto’s skill; he is after all the best pediatric surgeon in the city. No, I have to confess, the problem is more like, how could I be his teacher, his superior in English, so intelligent and with beautiful eyes, plus a generation older to boot, and still retain my dignity when he examined my flagging corpus. It was vanity.

      One Monday morning when I woke feeling seriously ill I tried to call Alberto’s number to cancel class, but as often as not the telephones don’t work, and it didn’t. So he showed up on time at the gate. George went out and informed Alberto that la maestra was ill, and Alberto asked if he could see me. “Sure,” I said, supposing he would greet me and leave.

      I was in bed fully clothed, but since the covers were pulled up Alberto could see only my blouse which does look like a pajama top, I don’t know why I bought it. I was holding my head and moaning while smiling cheerfully and the three of us set about joking while I suffered abdominal agonies. But wait a minute, Alberto was doing the doctor thing! He asked if I had vomited, if I had diarrhea, if I had eaten street food. He asked if I had a fever and George bounded into the bathroom to retrieve the fever thermometer which Alberto instructed me to place in my axillary, no, under the blouse. He asked if George had a blood pressure machine and George found his old one and inserted batteries and together they carefully ascertained my blood pressure was normal. Alberto wanted me to open wide and say “Aaah” and George quick as a wink had the batteries out of the blood pressure device and tucked into a nearby flashlight. My throat was clear.

      Soon Alberto declared that I was experiencing a toxic reaction to something I had eaten. He gazed into my beautiful eyes and asked if I wanted him to bring medicine; his office was right around the corner and he would return immediately. Feebly, I nodded.

      When he came back Alberto handed me a box of pills to quiet the stomach pain, and a small bottle of banana-flavored liquid sulfa compound. George fetched a spoon. Being somewhat larger than your average infant I swallowed a double dose. That stuff is vile.

      On Wednesday, next class day, I was afoot, outfitted with mascara and a dictionary; the coffee was hot. Alberto didn’t come. Finally, when his class time had passed he appeared at the gate to inquire after my health. It seems he had to go pay his auto excise tax; it was the very last day. Since I happen to know that Alberto, with Mexican disregard for the niceties, often doesn’t bother with his driver’s license, I could only be impressed. As for my illness, I was clearly improved, and in fact, I told him, I simply couldn’t swallow any more banana syrup. Nor the pills either. “Fine,” he replied, that was fine, and left me to my next student. Thus ended my worst illness of the year.

      When Alberto arrived on Friday, I was watching to see if his attitude toward me had undergone a change — where formerly I was his beautiful intelligent teacher, was I now just another faltering elder? But if he ignored my health, would I become pettish for his lack of concern? Fortunately George had just gone off for a run up the local hill and when he returned the moments of magic intimacy vanished — Alberto loves to pretend we have an “understanding” which is hidden from George. George and I have an understanding which we try to keep hidden from Alberto, whom George refers to as my boyfriend, but whom I now refer to as my doctor. I remember the old wisecrack my mother loved, “I’m very sorry I can’t come to work today, I’m in bed with the doctor.” And she often was.

      Do you see how this relates to house calls? Patients in the USA are wise not to regret them unless the patient is willing to crawl into a cradle and eat banana syrup. As for romance with a pediatric surgeon, there’s more than one kind of Valentine.

N.D., October 26, 2002




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