Monday, December 31, 2012

Tenacious G: The Eyes Have It

I’ve decided that what’s wrong with our healthcare system boils down to two factors—my mother and doctors.

First, let's talk about Mom.
My 86-year-old mother nagged me for the better part of November to get her a new pair of eyeglasses because the old ones "weren't working anymore." Naturally, I'm not ethically able to accomplish this without the assistance of an ophthalmologist (aka, eye doctor). She had cataract surgery last year, so this problem should have already been cleared up. I responded as soon as I could. The challenge was finding a nearby doctor with an appointment time open in the same year that I was calling.

Which brings us to doctors.

I made an appointment with an ophthalmologist and after three weeks of waiting, we arrived to get her glasses prescription checked.

When I was a child, we went to an eye doctor who had a practice in his home, a lovely Victorian house near Main Street in Boonton. We would sit in his parlor listening to a grandfather clock tick until the patient before us was finished. There were no televised commercials blaring. Just blessed silence. And the ticking sound. Then the eye doctor would invite us into his examining room and spend the next hour with us. He knew us by name and asked us how everyone in the family was doing. On the way out, I got a lollipop.

Today, eye doctors are strangers located in office buildings and deal in patient volume. We stood in line for 15 minutes, much like is done at the Division of Motor Vehicles, waiting to check in with the receptionist. Then we spent another 20 minutes waiting in a room packed with dozens of other patients before being shown in to an examining room. Mom was complaining loudly and bitterly about the wait time throughout.

Patient volume is important. That means standing-room-only.
The examining room allowed Mom and me plenty of additional quality time until a young girl with a perky smile came in and gave my mother several vision tests. Unfortunately, the girl had a thick accent and I am hard of hearing, so it was difficult for me to understand anything she said. She asked Mom a number of rapid-fire questions about her eyesight and my mother had no idea how to answer the technical terms that were being thrown her way. So, Mom denied having any problems whatsoever. While this was happening, I experienced more flashbacksthis time, of her nonstop eye complaints during the past two months.

We were escorted back into the standing-room-only waiting room where we sat for another 15 minutes before being re-invited into a second examining room. Like sands in an hourglass, more of our lives passed into a sandy lump of boredom. Just as we were both about to doze off, the doctor swept into the room. He reviewed what the young girl had written on Mom’s chart and asked Mom if she had any vision complaints.

Which brings us back to the patient:

Eye problems? Me? No way.
Like the Biblical disciple, Peter, in the high priest’s courtyard, Mom denied her vision problems a second time.

“No,” she replied. “I’m fine.” Mom comes from that generation of women who were taught never to complain—except to their daughters. I reminded her that she was having problems seeing out of one of her eyes and as a result wasn’t able to read as much or generally see things when we went shopping.

She denied this a third time, looking irritated, and I gave up.

Which returns us to the doctor:

The doctor smiled, peered intently at her eyeballs, then announced that in 30 percent of cataract surgeries, the eye clouds over, and that’s what happened to her. The solution is a five-minute laser surgery that corrects it. Having delivered his prognosis, he left as quickly as he had come.

By now, both Mom and I had lost interest in her eye problems. We just wanted to leave. As the afternoon wore on, Mom’s primary concern became getting back to her assisted living facility for dinner.

Dinner became Mom's focus.
This day’s appointment had been for 12:30 p.m. and it was now almost 4 p.m. I must assume that the eye doctor believed that anyone who had the audacity to schedule an appointment with him was grateful to spend a half day playing musical chairs in his office.

The young girl returned to fill out paperwork for my mother’s office surgery that would take place in about six weeks. She asked my mother detailed questions about her eyesight, trying to establish what needed improvement. Nothing, according to my mother. The young girl flashed a disingenuous smile and told us someone would be calling the following day to set up a surgery appointment.

Two weeks later I received the call. In a month, she will have another opportunity to spend the better part of a day with this doctor. We can only hope the surgery will clear up her vision. I don’t know if we have the stamina to return to his office again.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Coming to Terms with the Unacceptable

When I heard about the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut, my gut reaction was disbelief and tears. I am a mother, after all. So, in a universal sense, those children were my children, too. My husband, on the other hand, reacted in an entirely different fashion. He became very angry. He wanted to find the parties at fault and punish them. But who would that be?

The carnage at Sandy Hook Elementary School was heinous, but since Columbine in 1999, I have seen too many mass shootings in the news to believe that any simple fix will put an end to them. Even before the smoke clears, the news media begins finger pointing. And the scenario always seems to go like this: Senseless tragedy, news reports featuring the killer like a celebrity, political pontification, days or weeks of analysis including a scorecard of number of people killed in past shootings versus the current one, and finally,  human interest stories that follow up on the courage of survivors or lament lives cut short.

I don’t mean to trivialize this terrible event. We all are going through a group grieving process. And we follow these rituals to come to terms with what has happened. What I do disagree with is the na├»ve notion that any one piece of new legislation or mental health band-aid will put an end to this type of bloodshed.

It seems to me that someone who murders groups of innocent people is already profoundly deranged. Maybe they were born that way; maybe circumstances pushed them over the edge. It surely differs from one instance to another. So, why can’t we stop these madmen? Because of one simple fact—no one can ever truly know what is going on in the mind of another human being.

Should we ban assault weapons? Makes sense since they are not used for hunting. Would be a good start. But even in countries where people have no access to guns, mass killings take place. In China, there have been a series of grammar school massacres by disgruntled, knife-wielding perpetrators. Will more access to mental health support solve the problem? Perhaps.  Although many psychotropic drugs dispensed by psychiatrists have side effects that can trigger aggressive behavior and suicide. And if someone is psychotic, can any amount of care truly help them or must we just learn to identify them and remove them from society? Is it deficient parenting? We all try our best, but with the loss of the extended family and the necessity of two parents in the workplace, parenting is more of a challenge than ever.

We live in a pressure-cooker society with long work hours, negativity-drenched media, a lack of community safety nets and a hunger for simple kindness on an everyday basis. None of this can be fixed by the federal or state government.

Only on an individual basis can we begin to change our world. That may include turning off vitriolic news commentators, building stronger relationships with family and neighbors, and reassessing how we treat ourselves as a part of the global environment. Everything we think, say and do shapes the world in which we live. Granted, individual behavior shifts are also unlikely to deter all potential killers, but they represent a first step at creating a world that is less likely to incubate them. And in the meantime, it could make life more pleasant for the rest of us.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Shatner's World: We Just Live in It

William Shatner reflects on life.
In a departure from its usual high-brow showcases of classical music, opera and plays, this past Sunday the New Jersey Performing Arts Center hosted Canadian actor William Shatner in a one-man show befitting his infamous humility titled, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It

As admitted long-time Star Trek fans, my husband, Stephen, and I couldn’t resist attending this gathering of gray-haired geekdom. (I also must confess to a sneaking admiration for Shatner’s more recent character, Denny Crane, from Boston Legal.)

When I was a teenager, in the late 1960s, my friends and I were glued to the television every Wednesday night when the original Star Trek television show was aired. We thrilled to watching Captain James T. Kirk, his first officer, Mr. Spock, and their trusty crew careening through the galaxy, sparring or smooching with aliens and attempting but usually failing to follow the prime directive of noninterference with indigenous cultures. This often resulted in the ship’s doctor, Bones, announcing, “He’s dead, Jim.” as red-shirted ship’s crew collapsed around them. And who could resist that well-oiled chest peeking out of Kirk's oft-ripped Federation uniform.

But this performance was not an homage to Star Trek as much as a celebration of its famed over-acting star, William Shatner. At a spry 81 years old, he was remarkably witty, philosophical and engrossing to watch as he strode across the stage talking, and occasionally screaming, for emphasis.

Shatner backed by his projected crew.
Shatner began with a chronological sharing of his life and career, which was funny, touching and thought-provoking. We learned such cocktail party trivia as the last words of Steve Jobs, which were “Wow, wow, wow.” but with no certainty as to if his dying statement was an expression of wonderment or trepidation. We reviewed his career from stage to television to screen and heard many amusing anecdotes related to each. We shared his love of horses, which brought him and his latest wife (number four, I think) together. They’ve been married for 13 years, so it would seem he has finally found some peace in his personal life.

At the end of the performance, he offers a projected collage of scenes from throughout his long life and makes the point—obviously important to him—that no one should ever expect him to save the world or look upon him as an authority figure. “I’m only an entertainer,” he reminds his audience. Indeed, that’s true. And as his fan-base slowly filed out of the auditorium there was a satisfied consensus that he was correct. William Shatner is an entertainer—and a very accomplished one at that.