Not that Dr. Rivers was a bad guy. He was a jovial, back-slapping sort, quick to cut through the malarkey and give it to you straight about your urinary tract infection or your six weeks to live. Granted, he was also a right-wing gun nut, always going on about shopping at gun shows and deer hunting, so I did secretly wish for him a gun-cleaning disfigurement of some kind. But you know, nothing life-threatening. A missing thumb would’ve been fine.
It’s just that, even with both thumbs, the guy was in terrible shape. Not just overweight, but a chain-smoker, constantly wheezing and dripping sweat. He huffed around the office, beet red throughout his balding head, his clipboard slippery from his wet fingers. I deferred to his medical expertise regardless, but let’s face it, a doctor who appears to need immediate hospitalization does not instill confidence. I mean, you wouldn’t buy smoke detectors from a guy engulfed in flames, would you? I had my misgivings about the wobbly doctor, but I kept returning to his office at the insistence of my mother. Having worked for years at the local hospital, where she acquired all the inside dope on county physicians, my mother assured me that Dr. Rivers was one of the few in family practice not currently under investigation for child molestation or back alley facelifts. So I continued to let him heave and sweat all over me while he searched for bowel obstructions.
Dr. Rivers and I served as two opposing forces during my visits: the hypocrite and the hypochondriac. Sensing that my real trouble was uncontrollable anxiety, and not, as I insisted, full-blown cancer of the lyme disease, the moist doctor dispensed topical creams at random and told me to sleep it off. Dr. Rivers would, however, between slugs of Mountain Dew, lecture me on the importance of a healthy diet and exercise routine to reduce anxiety-induced stomach ailments, emphasizing his point with a six-minute coughing spasm. This was the stand-off. Doctors, as we all know, consider any patient’s attempt at self-diagnosis a personal attack. Whereas I, as a hypochondriac, don’t feel I’m getting my money’s worth if my innumerable symptoms are not acknowledged. At these prices, I feel I should be getting a real diagnosis of some kind. Restless Leg or Shaken Baby or something.
Why couldn’t Dr. Rivers have been more like my vet? Dr. Milvey of the Heartstrong Veterinary Clinic looked and behaved like a man in training for a vital space mission. He scrutinized the x-rays of Pepper’s kidneys with a humorless intensity, rattling off treatment options like Adam West trying to decode the Riddler’s latest jewelry heist. The rock-jawed seriousness of his delivery convinced me of my crucial role in the dog’s recovery, and that Pepper might live to scamper again if only we ACTED AT ONCE. I always left feeling that I had a new purpose to my life. Dr. Milvey and I were on the Winning Team, joined together in our fight against hook worm and fungal infections.
“I can run tests if you want,” Dr. Shore would say. “But I can tell there’s nothing wrong with you just by looking at you.”
A hypochondriac, you see, can never completely trust a healthy person. He needs some indication that the physician he’s dealing with knows about illness first hand. Because only a sick person knows that sickness is sometimes real, and not just wishful thinking. And what I recall in Dr. River’s approach that really spoke to me was when he would match my health complaints with his own.
“Acid reflux? Oh, man, I know what you’re talking about there. Mine keeps me up all night. Listen, that’s no stomach cancer. Just double up on your Xantac and forget about it.”
It often made me feel angry and dissatisfied that I wasn’t being diagnosed with something more exotic and fabulous, or being treated to elaborate procedures by guys in radiation suits. Because what the hypochondriac needs, ultimately, is a genuine condition to distract his focus from the imaginary ones. A left arm lost to a band saw, verifiable with a mere glance at the infected stump, can be a godsend to the patient ordinarily worried about bird flu.