Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Pre-Pre-Pre Med

When I was maybe five a doctor friend of my parents, Arthur Shapiro, gave me a stethoscope he was finished with. I was thrilled – not about putting the plugs in my ears and listening, but by having a real object, a fetish from the grownup world. Next to that my toy doctor's kit with its little bottle of pink sugar pills paled by comparison.  
Drawing by Suzanne Dunaway
For checkups my brother and I would get driven all the way from Flushing across the 59th Street Bridge to the pediatrics department in the white towers of New York Hospital. All I remember about Dr. Fraad* is he once reassured my mother about my baby toenail that she thought was growing in funny. Sixty years later I showed her the same toenail and she was still unconvinced.

Most of the time I kind of liked being sick. Sickness turned on my mother’s Fair Illness Code. You got to eat apple sauce with pills crushed up inside, if you had a fever of 100° you got to stay home from school, and after the fever was gone you had a right to one extra day at home. Once during a high fever I hallucinated climbing a huge mountain without ever getting to the top, like Sisyphus with his stone, and I remember I considered it great fun – delirium as a natural psychedelic.
But once when I had an earache I remember my mother weeping helplessly at my bedside. I must have been howling in pain myself, but the sight of her in tears was so astonishing that it’s all that’s stuck in my memory. The torment of another earache stuck in memory as an engulfing red ball that expanded bigger and bigger. The doctor came to the house, I can still see him looming over my bed, but the pain only stopped when my eardrum burst the next day. I found it wonderful to have no hearing from my right ear, and kept rubbing the outside to test it.
Medicine didn’t have much of a presence in my young universe, but expatriation did. Many of our family friends had fled the Nazis, and as Jews by origin if not religion my parents always kept their mental bags half-packed for a quick exit. Which is why my father once suggested that I should become a doctor, advice I scorned for decades. His reasoning was that – in the worst case scenario – I could instantly set up shop as a physician anywhere in the world. He didn’t, needless to say, know Italian bureaucracy!

*added October 12, 2018: An email from a reader set me to googling Dr. Fraad. I learned from his New York Times obituary that he was indeed distinguished enough to be worth the trip across the bridge – Benjamin Spock cited him as an influence – and that he was an active left-winger, possibly a Communist, instrumental in sparking the famous 1969-71 health workers’ collective at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx. You can hear him speak here, very near the beginning.
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