I hadn’t had a personal doctor for 25 years, but now if I didn’t get one “they” would put a big deductible on my health insurance. As if not having a doctor is a sign of poor health. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

So I got a doctor. It wasn’t easy. The dozen or so that I called said they weren’t taking any new patients. Finally it took a personal connection to find a doctor who would take me. It made me wonder how the poor were doing in that regard.

I liked the guy right away. He was forthright. Funny. Around my age. When it came time for my rectal exam, he said, “Okay, now I’m going to have to put my finger up your butt. I told my wife the other day, ‘If I’d known about how many times I’d have to put my finger up someone’s butt, I would’ve never chosen this profession’.”

(Actually he administered the least painful rectal exam I’d ever had. Dreading the old rectal exam I think was part of the reason I hadn’t had a doctor for so long.)

When he asked if I had any complaints, I said, not really. I could use a little more energy, I said, but who couldn’t. Once you get a certain age, it’s hard to know which ailments are simply a matter of getting old.

Here’s what I take, he said, writing me out a prescription. I prescribe these to a lot of people our age. It’s a diet pill, an appetite suppressant. That’s its first function. People lose weight and that’s a good thing. But it also gives you a little juice. Increases your metabolism. Think of it like this. You’re walking in the woods and a bear shows up on your path.

That would bring the old metabolism up a notch or two, I agreed.

You don’t have to take it every day, he said. Sometimes a cup of coffee and you’re rearing to go. Sometimes not. But take it in the morning because it’s a twelve hour pill.

As I said, I liked the guy immediately.

At first I’m not even planning to fill the prescription. Then one day I am in the pharmacy, checking out the vitamin selection, and the next thing I know I’m standing at the prescription window. I’ll probably never use these, I’m telling myself, but it won’t hurt to have them around for a rainy day. At the cashier’s counter, I’m told that my insurance doesn’t cover this drug. And it’s not cheap either.  Over a dollar a pill.  Had I known that … Or well, too late now.

Go figure. The very next morning the coffee doesn’t quite get the job done and I’m breaking the seal on that little plastic bottle of diet pills. And, indeed, a few minutes later there he is — that bear Doc was talking about.  The trouble is that it’s a teaching day, and suddenly I’ve got a lot more energy than my students are used to. I’m making off-the-wall comments about politics and religion. Not that they aren’t true, but in one class I become very intense about what a dark soul Trump is, and end up by saying Clinton’s just as bad.  I’m aware that a teacher shouldn’t bring personal politics into the classroom, but at least I am passionately negative about both candidates.

In my next class, American lit, we’re doing Whitman, and I end up standing on my desk, like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, reciting “O Captain! My Captain!”  As the day wears on, I start getting a bad case of dry mouth.  Halfway through Philosophy 101, I can barely make myself heard — probably a blessing in disguise, because I’m trying to say that it’s the rare American who’s not an ignoramus in terms of what he or she thinks is going on in the world — and that the whole system of education wants to keep it that way. Because a truly educated people would bring this government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich to a screeching halt.

Then after the class, I tell my favorite student, who’s the last to leave, how unfair it is that I get to see her only twice a week. And even as those gravelly spoken words are fumbling out of my mouth, I’m worried that maybe she takes it as a come-on.  When all I mean is how nice it is to be in the presence of a smart person.

I don’t sleep a wink that night.

A couple days later, the next time the cup of coffee doesn’t quite get the job done, I take half a pill. That turns out to be much more manageable — more like seeing a bear in a zoo. And it has been half a pill ever since, and then only on the days I have a heavy teaching schedule.

Of course there always is the next day after the pill to face — inevitably a hellish, flat kind of day, where I have to work hard to come up with reasons why I should still be alive. Let alone get any productive work done.

For every action, there’s an equal opposite reaction. How long does it take a person to learn that simple lesson.

. . .

I’ve had four ex-father-in-laws (counting two common law marriages), all of whom I loved very much. But no one more than my Mexican ex-father-in law, Dr. Zavala. He was a man of much experience and wisdom.  Long before I knew him, he’d done volunteer work in a prison in Mexico City, met Fidel Castro, and even doctored the man who had assassinated Trotsky.

He never much liked the mainstream medical industry, and turned his back on a ready- made lucrative practice to found a private clinic, something more in line with his holistic way of thinking.

“Once you’re in the hands of doctors,” Dr. Zavala frequently said with a glint in his eyes, “you almost never get out.”




  1. Michael B.

    I could almost hear you saying “where I have to work hard to come up with reasons why I should still be alive.”

    This blog should be one, always, Jim. Fantastic work.

  2. Eugenia

    Loved this article. Good to remember my father from another person’s perspective.

  3. Debbie Thompson

    I agree with Dr. Zavala. He sounds like a wise man. I’m glad you found a doctor you like and even more glad you’re healthy enough not to need him. It’s a good idea to be established with someone though, just in case. But please throw those pills away! I’m sure you’re much better without them. It’s like so many things I hear about these days–the treatment is worse than the disease.



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