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.

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