Sunday, June 06, 1999

Wanted: New doctor for cranky patient

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Bad news arrived in the mail last week. Terrible news, really. One of my doctors is retiring. Worse, he is my gynecologist.

        (Note to male readers: I will not be discussing the clinical aspects of our relationship, so you may continue to read without fear of finding out more than you want to know about stirrups and paper gowns. You can remain blessedly ignorant of what the medical instruction “scoot” means to the women in your lives.)

        The official letter from Harold E. Johnstone, M.D., read:

        “After 34 years in private practice and delivering more than 5,000 babies, it is time for me to retire.”

        Geez, I noticed a little gray in his hair, but I picked this guy because he was young. And also because I heard he took only “difficult” cases. Since I get cranky when I'm sick and tear coupons out of the magazines in the waiting room, I figured I qualified.

Breaking the news
        He delivered our daughter, Meg, 24 years ago, and I remember thinking I was glad the first voice she would hear was his. Soft. Gentle. He says I should check with some of the residents he has trained. Maybe I'd get a different impression.

        And I expect he might not always be gentle with them.

        He is sending them out on the difficult mission of keeping women healthy, sometimes with little cooperation from us. Once, when I missed my annual checkup, he called me himself.

        “If you're seeing somebody else, that's fine,” he said tactfully. “I just wanted to make sure you're being cared for.”

        The truth is that I hadn't made an appointment for my mammogram — such an inconvenience — and I knew he would nag me. He did. So I got one. And it was his gentle voice — the one that ushered my daughter into this world — that told me I had breast cancer.

        Other doctors, a surgeon and an oncologist, took over from there. But Dr. Johnstone called the hospital twice after I had surgery — “just to see how you're doing.” I told him he sounded like he was calling from the bottom of a barrel. He was, he said, on vacation. Out of the country.

        A very nice man.

        There have been those times when all that he could do for one of us, all that modern medicine could do, has failed. And then I have known him to put his head in his hands and cry like a baby.

A false alarm
        He says he tells his residents it's important that they're smart and learn their specialty, that they develop the technical skills they need. “But your patient is the last one to know how good you are. You have to let them know you care about them.”

        Not too long ago, I had a scare, something that didn't look right, something that required another test. When he told me everything was OK, I said, “I knew you were worried.”

        He looked startled.

        “Don't worry, Doctor. You haven't lost your game face. I just know you too well.”

        And he knows me.

        This is something the new age of health care is going to have to factor into the equation. Every bean is the same to the bean counters. But we patients are not so tidy and uniform. Sometimes our complaints are embarrassing. We don't want to talk about them with a stranger.

        Sometimes when we are cranky, it's because we're scared. And sometimes, even though we don't say a word, our doctor knows something is wrong because he knows how we look when we're healthy and happy. That takes time. And more than five minutes with an HMO doctor du jour.

        So, Dr. Johnstone, I don't mind telling you that I am sincerely honked off that you are unhooking yourself from your pager to go bird-watching. You will hand me off, I know, to another doctor you trust. I hope it's somebody young because I'm planning to be around for a long time.

        Thanks to you.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at or call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.