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This is only going
to hurt a little . . .

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Since I landed in New York ten years ago, two friends have conked out and four, including my wife, have given birth, and between the departures and arrivals, I’ve had some experience with New York doctors, almost all of it good. An outstanding obstetrician coached my wife to the goal line and assisted our daughter into the world, and now a patient pediatrician answers our questions (Should a four-month-old be this chubby? Why does her belly button look like a bubble?) as an intrepid internist oversees my advance toward decrepitude. And as for the otolaryngologist who snaked a swab up my nose to take a sinus culture and sent it to a lab to establish that I had a cold and prescribed an antihistamine and charged me $300 for the pleasure, well, what was I doing going to a doctor about a cold anyway?

A person in New York often thinks about health care. You race around town snatching up hot dogs for sustenance, breathing truck fumes, collecting germs on your hands and rubbing them into your eyes, and as you wedge yourself onto the train for the trip home and glance up at the ads for painless removal by laser of hemorrhoids, you think, If I were to get really sick tomorrow, whatever would I do?

You would start looking for a good doctor, which is no easy task, since a good doctor is known by the outcome and you don’t know what that is yet. A good doctor is one who tells you that you’re going to be just fine, that the rackety feeling in your chest is easily cured by these pills, which he doles out in fistfuls from his supply of free samples, and off you go, your faith in your immortality restored. But where to find him?

It’s a fear common to new New Yorkers that this is a Third World city when it comes to health care, that you easily could choke on a pretzel while crossing Sixth Avenue and collapse in the gutter in front of Radio City and lie semi-conscious among the gum wrappers as advertising execs step over you as if you were a homeless person and eventually be scraped up and shipped to some charnel house of a hospital to be parked in a hallway for five or six or ten hours and there catch a virulent infection and expire in the arms of a clerk who is filling out the insurance forms and end up as a human-interest story in the next day’s Daily News (GUY, 34, FELLED BY PRETZEL INFECTION), but the truth is that New York takes pretty good care of most of its people. The very rich and the very poor may get lousy care, but you don’t have to.

Of course, your most important health decision is when you choose your parents, and your second-most important is when you choose how to live your life, and choosing a doctor is easy compared with those. How did I choose the great doctors who tend my family today? First, I looked around for my copy of New York’s last “Best Doctors” issue and remembered that I’d left it at our house in Wisconsin. I thought about asking a friend for a recommendation, and then, as a desperate last resort, I looked through the Yellow Pages.

Asking a friend to recommend a doctor is awkward. You sit down to lunch and ask for the name of a good oncologist, it casts a pall over the whole meal. The friend feels obligated to inquire about your malady and extend sympathy. As for asking a doctor to recommend another doctor, it makes no sense, because, frankly, what do they know? Doctors know about other doctors like priests know about marriage. The doctors I know don’t go to doctors, ever. If they’re in pain, they take four Advil and go to bed early; if they break a leg, they try to stay off it for a few days.

Looking through the Yellow Pages for a doctor is not recommended by the editors of New York, by me, or by my attorney, but if you’re forced to that extreme, you should know how to proceed. I work by a process of elimination. I eliminate doctors with very Waspy names like Postlethwaite or Dimbleby-Pritchett whose addresses suggest that their waiting rooms will be done up in Ralph Lauren; and I eliminate doctors whose first name is the same as any of the dumbest people I went to high school with, and doctors whose name (Alfred, Elmer, Hugo, Edith) suggests advancing age and perhaps an ignorance of antibiotics. I avoid doctors with large ads with big blocky type (WORRIED ABOUT YOUR PROSTATE? UROLOGIST LARRY “BUZZ” BARKER CAN PUT YOUR MIND AT REST WITH A SIMPLE FIVE-MINUTE EXAM. $45. OFFICE OR OUTCALL. MAJOR CREDIT CARDS), and I avoid doctors in solo practice at an address whose house number ends with a fraction.

When I call up a doctor to inquire about an appointment, if I hear turmoil in the background, such as weeping or teeth-gnashing, I hang up. Also if the receptionist answers the phone by saying “Yeah?” or if I’m put on hold and hear New Age piano music. A doctor who thinks I will be comforted by listening to piano chords for five minutes is nobody I would trust to prescribe medication.

We all have our little prejudices when it comes to choosing doctors (I would never, for example, choose a surgeon who uses his first initial -- e.g., E. Wellington Fornier -- or an internist who weighs more than 200 pounds, or a shrink with a Scandinavian surname, or a cardiologist who leaves religious tracts around the waiting room, or a dermatologist with a really bad haircut), and it is important to exercise these prejudices as a magical mojo ritual in the health-care process, much as primitive nomadic people might smoke the tent with burnt emu as a preparation for childbirth: It clears out evil spirits, and believe me, there are evil spirits roaming around in the field of medicine. Bad things happen to nice people that can’t be explained any other way, and you need to do the right things to keep those spirits at bay. While I look through the Yellow Pages, I am careful to sprinkle a few grains of salt on each page, and when I call for an appointment, I do so while standing up, never sitting, and when I go to the appointment, I always wear new underwear. Not just clean. New.


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