On Doctors, Heating Pads, And Uncle Tom

I grew up in a small town with small United and Mennonite churches. In a small town with predominantly Caucasian people.

And by predominantly, I mean totally.

The first time I met a person of colour was at my doctor’s office. I was probably 4 or 5. Around there, somewhere.

I remember really liking the magazines and books that were in the waiting room. There were a bunch of National Geographics from the 60s, old medical journals, and an illustrated comic book called Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In retrospect, there may be some irony there.

When I got called in to the doctor’s office, I saw him. White gleaming lab coat. Clipboard in his hands. Shiny silver stethoscope around his neck.

And the blackest skin I had ever seen.

I was probably staring, because mom gave me a nudge.

I don’t remember what I was there for. I was a bit of a sickly kid, so, as time went by, it wasn’t uncommon to end up in this office. Probably tonsillitis. That seemed to be a recurring theme.

I got the full work over.

He had the greatest accent I had ever heard. [I found out later that he was from some place called Jamaica] Likely, it was the only accent I’d ever heard, except for Low German.

“Ya, mon. I’m going to check your reflexes now. Try to keep your leg from moving.”

Tap. Leg jerk. Big laugh from the doctor.

“That seems to be working. Let’s check your lungs and heart.”

Freezing cold stethoscope on my back and chest. Random tapping. Slight humming from the doctor.

“Sounds OK. Let’s check your throat.”

I remember now. It was tonsillitis. When he rubbed my throat, it hurt like crazy.

“Now for the belly.”

A few more taps, which also felt bad. “Tsk. Tsk. A bit of infection.”

All in all, it was pretty cool.

Then it was time for the diagnosis. “Your son has tonsillitis and a low grade infection. Those tonsils should come out.”

My mom said, “No.”

“OK then. The best thing is to drink plenty of liquids. That will bring down the fever. Also, two Aspirin.”

“What about his stomach?”

He paused, deep in thought. Then he brightened. “Merely put a heating pad on it.”

Over the years that I saw him, the last part was part of every prescription: “Merely put a heating pad on it.”

He was a great doctor … as long as nothing was actually wrong with you. If there was something seriously wrong with you – something time couldn’t really heal on its own – you were in deep trouble.

As my visits became a bit more frequent, his prescription of “Merely put a heating pad on it” got less and less helpful. I still felt better when I left his office, simply, I think, because he was such a happy and upbeat guy.

Just not so much of a good doctor.

In spite of his lack of any concrete help for me, I was still reluctant to move on to a new doctor. Who knows what kind of crazy treatment some other doctor might come up with.

The heating pad had gotten me this far.

Still, I eventually moved on to another doctor. As I explained my symptoms and what was generally going on, he said, “Have you ever heard of Prednisone?”

I’ve been with him ever since. Even though he has never prescribed using a heating pad for my ailments.

By the way, I still have my tonsils … in a jar, beside my bed.*

*That just sounds creepy. They’re not beside my bed … they’re in a little box in the basement.

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