My good friend Jane Rosenthal, the film producer, says nobody knows doctors like I do. In a single day, I can cover the waterfront from neonatology to gerontology. For a woman who spent most of her life with weight as her only medical complaint, the wonderful world of doctors opened to me like Adventureland only when I hit midlife.
Around four years ago, my daughter, Lucy Jane, was born at 27 weeks, after I survived an unexpected bout of pre-eclampsia. Before pre-eclampsia, I saw my internist Richard Meyer perhaps once a year to fill out a form, or just to kibitz. Suddenly we were constant companions. After she was born, Lucy Jane spent ten weeks under the care of Ian Holzman, the head of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Mount Sinai Hospital. At the same time, my father’s health began failing.
It was while Lucy Jane was in the hospital that I accompanied my father to his first neurologist, specializing in senior citizens. “Repeat this story for me,” the doctor said. “The king went on a trip to Europe with his wife and three nephews.” He looked up at my father: “Okay, your chance now.”
“That’s a very boring story,” my father answered. “Why should I repeat it?”
Lucy Jane, under the care of her pediatrician, Ramon Murphy, emerged a healthy and delightful child. But eventually, like all toddler-school children, she made sure she got the most of my tuition dollars by taking advantage of every possible germ, flu, and ear infection her classmates had to offer.
One of my favorite days was when I took Lucy Jane to the pediatrician at 10 a.m. because she had developed thrush in her mouth, and then accompanied my father and mother to a sleep-apnea specialist because a doctor had thought my father was experiencing oxygen deprivation. He gave my father a sleeping mask that looked like a Darth Vader accessory. It lies, untouched, in his closet.
Perhaps I became envious of the amount of time my loved ones were spending with doctors, so I decided to become a patient myself, by developing Bell’s palsy, a partial facial paralysis. Or, as the writer Herb Gardner says, “I’ve got Bell’s palsy, and she’s got mine.” Only I was competitive. I got double Bell’s palsy. Bells were ringing.
I went to see Meyer. He suggested a steroid treatment. By this time, I was so overwhelmed by seeing doctors that I developed White Coat syndrome. Whenever anyone with a white coat and a stethoscope came near me, my blood pressure would skyrocket.
I have Bell’s palsy to thank for making my schedule into a medical merry-go-round. I would rise at 5 a.m. to write so I could spend my day with doctors. A typical cycle would begin with the Chinese acupuncturist (who finished each needle treatment by literally mashing his fist into my face), followed by a quick trip to Woodson Merrell, an old college friend and an empathetic homeopathic doctor, then finally a drop-in at the balance specialist, who put balloons with water in my ears and then twirled me around on a chair. My personal favorite was an East Side neurologist who casually told me, “You’re dying of a quick-moving cancer.” I immediately changed neurologists and began seeing Frank Petito, at New York Hospital. He took one look at my double Bell’s and exclaimed, “I knew you’d be an interesting person, but you’re also very interesting medically.”
During that period, I set my medical record. Between sunrise and sunset, I went to the Long Island Jewish Hospital to meet Kanti Rai, a hematologist, to see if my palsy was related to an elevated white-blood-cell count, then on to New York Hospital to visit my neurologist, and finally to Mount Sinai, to plan a benefit for the NICU. My friend Gerald Gutierrez, a head-and-neck-cancer survivor, exclaimed, “You did it! You outclassed me! You won the medical trifecta!”
While I was trapped in a medical bell jar, my father began complaining of pains in his ribs. I took him, with my mother and my niece, to see Howard Scher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The prostate-cancer center was new territory for me. I saw the possibility of a quadrifecta opening up.
My father, who was clearly in pain and unable to fully express his discomfort, smiled when Mary Ellen, the charming nurse, walked in. “Can you stand, Mr. Wasserstein?” she asked, as she stretched out her arm to assist him. My father began singing “Minnie the Moocher” and danced the Lindy with her.
Scher, who was so respected that we could only get an appointment after calling Charlemagne and the pope, smiled broadly as he entered the examining room and saw my father dancing with the nurse. “He’s a real bubbe,” he said. I had a feeling that the doctor, in his pressed designer pants and cuff links, had a beloved relative who was not unlike my dad.
Over the next year, my father’s cancer proceeded, my daughter overcame a mini-pneumonia like it was a common cold, and my Bell’s palsy was finally disappearing. “You can pass for normal,” Petito twinkled at me one day. “Dr. Petito, I could never pass for normal. There’s no reason to start now,” I told him.
A week before my father passed away, Diane Meier, his gerontologist, came to his apartment. I never knew that in Manhattan, doctors made house calls. She examined my father and later talked to my mother. There are still doctors in New York who look at a patient as a person with a family and not as a scientific phenomenon.
From my years with doctors, I know there are clearly things they can and cannot do. I have spent sometimes four hours in a waiting room only to hear, “I can’t really recommend anything. Let’s see how it goes.” Once, during a conversation about doctors, someone said to me, “There’s something wrong with this system.” And I answered, “Yes. It’s called mortality.”
On the other hand, I know that Scher extended my father’s life. Rai came up with a creative strategy for my Bell’s palsy, and Murphy has kept my daughter and many in her generation, regardless of their socioeconomic status, growing and healthy. And Meyer, my internist, became a trusted and steady friend.
Perhaps my favorite memory from my medical adventures was the night we threw a benefit for the Mount Sinai NICU at FAO Schwarz. We invited parents and alumni who had begun their lives at two pounds or less. For a photo, we asked Holzman to stand amid his graduates. As the healthy and vibrant 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds gathered around him, I thought of them all, once tiny and vulnerable in their incubators. Holzman smiled proudly. His was a life well-spent.