I can’t even begin to count how many ear infections I had as a kid. I could do the three block walk down Park Avenue to Dr. Grunfeld’s office with my eyes closed. With his puffy hair circling the bald spot on the top of his head, glasses tilted down to his nose, and thick Austrian accent, “Vell Lee-lee, vat have vee here”, he’d stick his otoscope into each ear. Nine times out ten the right one was the problem.
Enough of these ear infections sent me to Dr. Jaquelyn Jones, the ENT. An intimidating woman who stood just above my height. Dr. Jones performed my not-so-uncommon surgery to put a tube in my right ear; an attempt to help the drainage. She fitted me with my personalized, bright orange (by choice), ear plug and headband and I was back off into the world.
Years later when I woke up with blood on my pillow, a return to Dr. Jones lead to a CAT scan, which revealed a cholesteatoma. A benign tumor in my right ear. “One of the biggest she’d ever seen.”
On to Dr. Sujana Chandrasekhar, or as she kindly went by, Dr. C, a highly recommended ear surgeon. Her jolly demeanor and minor lisp (which only made her sound even more knowledgeable) could not have made me more comfortable during a series of surgeries from 2007 to 2013.
The last was planned before I moved to California. Still on my mother’s health insurance, I had to go under anesthesia in New York and New York only. Dr. C assured me I’d be okay to fly after three months and I booked my flight only one day following. “If you need anyone great in Los Angeles, I’ve got plenty of recommendations, but I’m sure we’ll be able to remove it all this time.”
With the assumption that I was still healthy, I turned 26 and signed up for my own health insurance. Not realizing how expensive preventative care could actually be, I chose the most affordable option and didn’t rush to meet my assigned primary care physician. A couple of trips to Planned Parenthood and urgent care seemed easier and more efficient for my minor colds, flus, and feminine needs, and how lucky I was to have them.
A summer visit to a friend’s pool, resulting in an excruciating pain in my right ear, had me finally make the call for a referral to an ENT. The news of a perforated eardrum was delivered by a doctor with an aggressive bedside manner whose upcoming retirement seemed to be not a moment too soon. My current condition significantly less urgent than a tumor, I decided it was something I could wait to take care of. And there was no way I was letting that man perform surgery on me. I probably won’t even have time to go swimming until next summer, I rationalized, fine to wait.
Enough time passed that even the sense of the minor urgency I’d felt to take care of this new problem dwindled. The idea of never swimming in the ocean again seemed okay, I guess. I never went passed wading depth anyway because who knew many sharks were in there.
Then, a few months later I logged onto my Facebook to a flood of posts announcing the death of a girl I’d gone to college with. I clicked on her page and scrolled. Photos of her at Sloane Kettering, photos of her at home with her family, photos of when she shaved her head accompanied by posts about how she was feeling.
How did I miss this? I know there is tragedy in the world but she was so young. Her parents. Her husband. It’s all so unfair. What happened? A flood of sadness and shock came over me. I was consumed with it. She was my age. Too young to be taken from the world.
Her best friend posted her obituary online a few days later. Her diagnosis: a highly malignant brain tumor called a Pineoblastoma. She’d only found about it two months before she died. How long had it been since I last saw that doctor? I tried to search through my planner to see if I’d written down that last appointment.
That’s when the anxiety started to creep in. I didn’t really have a doctor here. I didn’t have my Dr. Grunfeld, my Dr. Jones, my Dr. C or even my hilarious gynecologist, Dr. Hirsch. I didn’t have my army of people, I didn’t live near my mom anymore, and I didn’t even know who to write down in the “Primary Care Physician” section of any paperwork.
What if my perforated ear drum was worse than initially diagnosed? They hadn’t done an MRI to find it. That’s how they discovered my first cholesteatoma. What if it was actually there and I just didn’t know? If undiscovered a tumor, even a benign tumor, can become dangerously intrusive. More importantly—Why am I taking my health for granted?
In my classmate’s obituary her father quotes one of her favorite plays, Thorton Wilder’s ‘Our Town’, where the main character Emily’s last line is, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. All that was going on in life and we never noticed.”
During the next enrollment period I switched my insurance and immediately chose a primary care physician. I got an MRI just to be safe and thankfully the results were negative. For now, at least, I’m fortunate to be able to afford health insurance, and I’ve come to realize that my youth is relative and I need to use the resources available to me when I can.
Now Dr. Rodriguez, also known as Clem, is my person. Her office is not much more than three blocks away, and she has joined army of people I trust to take care of me. Because it does go fast. And sometimes it takes an awful tragedy to remind me of that.