Section: Print, C08
My eye doctor died.
I read his obituary in the paper recently and got all choked up. Despite baby boomers' sense of immortality, there is this reality check that happens to those of us of a certain age.
First my internist retires, then my dentist, now this. All these people who were supposed to take care of you all of a sudden aren't. So you go through the stages of mourning, and somehow you move on.
Even in the age of managed care, it's possible to develop a long-term relationship with a doc. Then it ends.
What a remarkable milestone. It's a little like when your parents die and you are nobody's kid. Losing your doctor, too, is a wrench.
My ophthalmologist had downsized his practice a few years ago, moving from a downtown office into a nearly suburban house. I dutifully drove to his new location to receive the TLC to which 30-some years had accustomed me.
Dr. H couldn't spend enough time with each patient. Especially downtown, you knew if you showed up two hours late for an appointment, you'd be right on time.
He didn't mind being called at home, and on rare occasions I phoned. Over the years, something akin to friendship developed. He shared his pride in his wife's professional accomplishments, the sadness of his adult daughter's premature death, and I gratefully inscribed books I'd written on Maryland and the Chesapeake to him.
By the time of his death, I hadn't seen him for a while and learned from the obituary that he had in fact retired in 2003. Meanwhile, I had found another, younger eye doctor closer to where I live and covered by my insurance. Still, I mourned my ophthalmologist, the last in a string of unexpected physician departures. My dentist's retiring really shook me up. We'd been together for 30 years, through crowns and root canals and routine fillings. He was only 62, three years older than I when he gave up his three-chair practice.
Other than my teeth, Dr. G and I didn't have much in common. But he loved golf. After I took up the sport, his wife, who assisted in the office after picking up lost balls on her morning golf course walks, gave me a handful.
When I learned of Dr. G's retirement, I actually cried. We had grown older together, so what did his retirement say about me? Not, to be sure, that I was getting any younger.
So rather than happiness over my dentist's long-awaited and richly deserved opportunity to play more golf and spend more time with grandchildren, I felt grief, even anger.
I missed his farewell party, held on a weekday during, of all times, working hours. My office was too far, I reasoned. I was too busy making a living, I rationalized, too essential to ever retire, or to take the time off to attend.
I regret this selfish lapse that had, more than logistics, prompted my absence. Dr. G, I'm sorry I missed your party. I hope you're hitting lots of killer drives and teaching your grandkids the fine art of putting. Belatedly, I wish you all the best.
I, of course, found a replacement dentist. Since he is also Dr. G, I shall refer to him as Larry the dentist.
This man is the Energizer Bunny of dentistry, but he is also, shall we say, if not long at least middling in the tooth. So when I tried to sign up our younger son for braces, Larry the D said at his age he wanted to cut back and orthodontia seemed the easiest way to let go. He was sure I would understand. But on appeal, he relented and has since installed the necessary hardware. Still, every time he tells me about his problematic knees, I cringe.
Dr. L, my longtime internist, did not retire early, though earlier than I would have liked. Over the years, he cared for me through two marriages, three children and other life cycle events. He promptly returned my calls, even when my ailments were minor, and he knew me well enough to prescribe meds over the phone.
Along the way, we talked about his fishing trips to Western Maryland, my work-related travel throughout the state, and life in general. When he took time off for a heart bypass operation, it was news to me. How could Dr. L be so mortal?
I stuck with Dr. L even after he was no longer participating in my insurance plan. The relationship, I figured, was worth the bigger co-payment after my $300 deductible. Then came a letter in the mail announcing his retirement. His decision had been made "with considerable regret . . . after 35 years in the practice of medicine," the letter said.
Anyone who switches doctors these days knows you need a scorecard to keep track of who accepts which health plan. Fortunately, the internists who cared for my mother now accepted ours, and I found myself in the capable hands of a woman who would quickly come to know me intimately, in the medical sense.
She's my first female doctor, and though we don't discuss golf or fishing, she is dedicated, sharp and caring. I asked her about patients who come to her practice after long-term relationships with other docs.
In some cases, she told me, she will spend an entire appointment discussing the loss, and if that doesn't do it, she will refer the patient to a psychiatrist.
Happily, I can report that I have made the transition in all instances without undue suffering. My new eye doctor couldn't have been nicer. Larry the D is hanging in there, and we continue to have a lot to talk about, in those in-between-drilling moments. Even my internist and I, it turns out, have a lot in common, since she is also my wife's doctor. You might say for now it's all in the family, and if I had a message for my new doc, it would simply be this:
Long may you live.