Bruce Campbell MD
A woman has the age she deserves.
She sweeps into the office with a flourish, filling the space with her personality. Because she is curt, some staff members duck down side hallways to avoid her. She reveals her septuagenarian status only with reluctance, and refuses to step onto the scale when she checks in. "I religiously weigh myself every month at home," she informs the tech. "It never changes, honey."
She is “old school.” She is of a certain vintage and likely cares little that people view her as crusty. She believes it to be a badge of honor to be thought of as "outspoken." She is like my parents’ friends from the 1960s who, as young adults, smoked aggressively, consumed prodigious volumes of gin and dry vermouth, and competed to be the loudest and most confident person in any social situation. She remains stylish, if dated, wearing a wool suit and hat well into spring. She carries a designer handbag. She is fond of expensive perfume. She is an aging vision from the past.
I successfully removed her tongue cancer with a surgical procedure over five years ago, so her follow-up clinic visits should be straightforward. Except for some scar tissue and persistent dryness, she has never had any other problems. She has no difficulty with articulation and remains cancer free. Everything, from my point of view, is perfect. She is one of my “saves,” someone who continues to do well after being cured of cancer with a surgical procedure.
“Everything looks fine, Mrs. Pierpont,” I tell her at one of her visits. “You are doing great! No sign of the cancer. There is nothing worrisome, at all.”
She snorts and glares at me. “Nothing, eh? I would never have another surgery! Never!” She continues. “This life is terrible! Why can’t you do something about the dryness? Why does my tongue feel so tight all of the time?”
Oh, I think.
“And another thing! Why does my tongue burn so much when I go to a Mexican restaurant? I used to eat some spicy foods, but I can barely tolerate them anymore! Oh, this is terrible! Just terrible!”
So it goes. Every time. I try to explain the mucosal changes. Scar tissue is less flexible. The linings are thin and sensitive. Things are stable but they will never return all the way to normal.
She is clearly not satisfied.
Finally, she gathers herself up, arises, and announces that she is leaving. As she does so, I find myself apologizing. “I am so sorry. I wish things were different,” I say. "See you next year?"
“Your assistant will hear from me when I am ready to return," She reaches the door, turns, and offers me a patronizing glance over her trifocals. “There, there, it’s okay,” she decides. "I suppose you did your best.”
"Thank you," I say. "I tried. Call if you need anything."
She nods solemnly and turns to leave. "I certainly will. Good day, doctor."
I can hardly wait until next time, I think, as I watch her head down the hall and out the door.
An earlier version of this essay appeared in my blog, "Reflections in a Head Mirror" in 2009.