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Bruce Campbell MD - Head and Neck Surgeon and author of A Fullness of Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity and Grace

A Fullness of

Uncertain Significance:

Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace

Bruce H. Campbell, MD FACS

A Fullness of Uncertain Significance - Norbert Blei August Derleth Award
A Fullness of Uncertain Significance_2D
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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Updated: Apr 28

The story below is adapted from my book, A Fullness of Uncertain Significance: Stories of Surgery, Clarity, and Grace. I read it aloud at an open mic night at LOLA: The Land O' Lakes Arts: A Campus for the Creative Spirit in Land O' Lakes, WI on April 18, 2024.

Thanks to Jennifer Anderson, Sharon Molinaro, and Adrienne Wallner for a great evening of readings, food, and community! Thanks, also, to Mitch Teich, who suggested the title.

Bruce Campbell reading at LOLA - Land O' Lakes Arts

My grandchildren will never know the sound of a busy signal. It’s true. The Modern Era has brought many miracles to our lives including telephones that are always answered. When I get a busy signal these days, I re-dial, thinking there must have been some kind of system overload problem.

Answering machine

Occasionally, a living human being answers my call. That is surprising and unexpected, though. Maybe we can talk about that sometime.

Here is what happens most of the time:

I dial. After two rings, a pre-recorded voice greets me. If I am standing, I sit. If I am sitting, I lean back. If I am leaning back, well, you get the picture.

“Hello. And thank you for calling Dr. Bob’s office.”

This phrase is fine. It's reassuring to know I reached the correct number. Whenever I visit Dr. Bob’s office, I have a good experience. I like Dr. Bob and his staff. Having the recording offer thanks for my call is courteous but not necessary. Knowing how kind Dr. Bob is, I find the message charming.

"Our regular business hours are 8:00 to 4:30 Monday through Friday."

This is useful information, but only if I had been calling Dr. Bob to find out when there is someone available to answer the phone. Perhaps this information could help me orient myself someday if I suddenly awaken from a deep sleep and do not know if it is day or night. I’ll call Dr. Bob’s office to find out if it is daytime! If I hear the recording, it is probably dark outside. There are, of course, more efficient ways to determine this.

I check my watch. It is 10:00 AM. Oh, no! Why doesn’t Dr. Bob answer? Is he hurt? Is everything all right?

"If you are hearing this message during our normal business hours, it just means we can’t get to the phone right now."

Thank God.

“Please be assured we will take your call in the order in which it was received.”

I like this. An egalitarian approach to the seemingly trivial task of phone triage strikes me as a small moment of justice in an otherwise disordered and chaotic world. If someone extremely important called immediately after I did--the President, perhaps, or maybe one of the Popes--I am delighted to know that Dr. Bob would take my call first.

But I think to myself, Why do they waste precious time telling me this? Is it really true? Might they be pre-screening the incoming calls? I am certain that Dr. Bob can see my name on caller ID. I half-expect a bored voice to click on the line and say, “Dr. Bob’s office. It's you again. Just hold, okay?” and then click off again. I make a note to check later to see if Dr. Bob spent the morning taking care of Beyoncé or Dua Lipa.

"Please stay on the line because our menu options have recently changed."

Now, I get restless. Is Dr. Bob part of some nefarious plot to force me to sit in my chair for an extended period of time? Perhaps his office is a front for terrorist organizations and he uses these messages to get targets to remain in one place long enough for enemy snipers to train high-powered rifles on their victims. Why else would Dr. Bob force me to listen to the entire menu when I heard this exact same message two years ago? What’s he up to? I creep along the wall and carefully shut the blinds.

“If you know your party’s extension, you can enter it at any time.”

Why didn’t they say this at the beginning? And why does Dr. Bob call people "parties"? When did “people” and “parties” become interchangeable? Is that proper usage of the term? Are there broader societal implications at play here? Where's my dictionary?

“If this is a medical emergency, please hang up and dial 9-1-1."

I become alarmed. How stupid does Dr. Bob think I am? “Hey, Dr. Bob! I’m bleeding to death here!!! Got any quick advice??? Can you squeeze me in today and sew my arm back on??? Gawd, I hope you are taking these calls in the order they were received!!!” I am starting to get upset with Dr. Bob.

“If you have a rotary phone, please stay on the line.”

Rotary phone??? Are they kidding? C’mon, Dr. Bob, who has a rotary phone anymore? Terrorists, perhaps? My kids have never even seen a rotary phone! And what if it’s an emergency? Do you really believe I can hang up AND dial 9-1-1 on my rotary phone while my arm is hanging from its socket? While I'm bleeding to death???

“Otherwise leave a message after the tone and we will get back to you at our earliest convenience...”

You will call me at YOUR earliest convenience?! That’s probably true but is it wise to TELL ME THAT?! I CAN’T STAND YOU, DOCTOR BOB!!!

Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – Pause – BEEP

I grip the phone, grit my teeth, and record my message but suspect that the reason for my call has long since healed, ruptured, or metastasized.

I hang up, shaken and exhausted. Tomorrow, I will call Dr. Bob and see if he can help me understand why I am so stressed and no longer have time to get anything accomplished.


Rage Against the Answering Machine

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