A thousand years ago, when I finished my residency, I found myself suddenly without medical insurance. It was the first time I was really on my own.
I’d been told if I joined the county medical society I could enroll in their group policy. I got the application and filled it out. The last page, “Recommendations,” had space for ten signatures. I needed to find ten doctors in the society to recommend me for membership.
I didn’t know anyone I could ask. None of my former professors were in the society.
I think, in this millenium, barriers of entry have gotten more flexible. But in the last millenium professional societies, like medieval guilds, had their standards to uphold.
I called the society to explain my predicament. Would three signatures do?
No. Ten signatures were ten signatures. That’s what it took to get in the club.
I began working as an anesthesiologist without medical insurance of my own. I was young, I figured. It would work out. Then I got a soft-tissue infection. It took weeks to clear up, during which time I couldn’t go into an operating room. I grew increasingly more desperate.
My first day back to work, I gave a particularly difficult anesthetic to a very sick patient. It went without a hitch.
“Nice work,” said the surgeon, a gray eminence, in the recovery room.
I had a brainstorm.
“Doctor,” I said, “Do you happen to be a member of the country medical society?”
Indeed he was. Might he be willing to recommend me so I could get insurance?
“Sure,” he said.
I was on my way.
I ran to my car to get the form. He signed.
Next to the signature space was a question box, “How many years have you known the applicant?”
There was room for a numeral. I figured he’d enter 1 and leave it at that.
He did write 1. After which he wrote, in large ink letters extending beyond the box, the word Day.
A sucker punch, that word Day.
I’d always known older men had the power to hurt me beyond reason, but not why. I was still years away from an understanding of what a father wound was.
I took the application home and considered my options. I wasn’t working in one place, but freelancing around at many hospitals. It would be a long time, I thought, before I had a steady job and anyone would really know me. And a long time before I’d have the guts to approach another older physician with another recommendation request.
I tore the application up.
I never joined the society.
I found an anesthesia position at a local hospital. I started writing. Somehow I got insurance. I began the long, slow process of healing what was torn inside me.
I forgot about the county society, until one night, about twenty years into my medical career, the phone rang in my study. It was an old man’s voice.
“Dr. Pascoe? I’m calling from the county medical society.”
“We’d like to invite you to join.”
I had been standing. The receiver grew heavy and I sat down. To a man who grows up without a father, every older male is something more than that.
“Do you still have that application with the ten references?” I said.
No. They’d changed that years ago. But even so, numbers were down. Not many young doctors wanted to join the society.
“I tried to join once,” I said. “When I started in practice. I didn’t know anyone who could recommend me.”
“I’m very sorry about that,” he said. He seemed genuinely saddened.
His voice was gravelly and solemn. He didn’t know me from Adam, but his tone was personal, caring, what you’d want in a mentor. I was needed by this man. The thought of hurting him was a hot stab behind my eyes.
It was absurd. I didn’t want to join.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“All right,” he said.
We hung up.
I suppose the call was a hundred times more difficult me me than for him. I suppose he moved on to the next name. I didn’t, and don’t, give a damn about the society.
But I still hear that voice.
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