ONE LAST THING
Nicky Smith column
My doctor is Chinese, from Taipei. Despite having lived in SA for about 23 years his English is a little touch and go at times. Sometimes I have trouble understanding what he is saying, when he bothers to say something.
He also doesn’t display a great attention span. Or I’ll arrive and say something like “My back... er”, and point at where I think the problem could be. He walks away from me and pats my shoulder like a stern uncle all at the same time. While telling me to lie down and take my shirt off — though I am not actually sure he has ever used those words. I think I intuit what he wants.
Once my shirt is off and my face is in the hole in the table he walks quietly into the curtained-off cubicle that is full of his wires, crocodile clips and voltmeters.
Sometimes he pokes me. And says something like “pain”, or “there” or “is sore” and I’ll try to point at the area but can’t — because lying on my front I am gesturing with pointless effort. I can’t really talk either because the hole in the table is an awkward size and it feels a bit like someone is holding my face closed. I mostly groan or take a deep breath when it’s sore, or grunt in agreement.
Then he starts to stick needles in me. I always ask the person I live with afterwards where the needle marks are and we try to count them. It always surprises me how many needles he takes out ... it’s as though they somehow multiply once he has disappeared behind the curtain after putting them in.
With my face stuck, my neck pulsing and my buttocks clenching madly, I can’t see what he is doing. I also can’t move because I am connected to multiple electrical current-generating machines and am terrified I am somehow going to tear my flesh or electrocute myself if I move too vigorously.
Lying there twitching like a frog in one of those scenes from an American high school movie science class experiment, I get to overhear the faceless others who have found their way to him.
One time I listened to a German woman tell the ancient Gary Larson lady who sometimes mans the “reception area” that she had come to see the doctor “because she can’t feel the nature, she is blocked when she is in the nature”. Yes, she said, she had been there before. Another time there was a lady who was having her period twice a month.
On one occasion a giant, swollen twitching man-ankle I saw through a chink in the curtain was snoring. Another man had had his hand crushed on a building site, I heard his friend translate for the doctor into English.
From this eavesdropping on strangers I hear that the lady with the aggressive period should have children soon if she means to, and drink a special tea twice a day. The snoring ankle needs to come back next week and must do his self-massage, while the crushed hand learns he will get some mobility but it will take a long time. And he will always have pain.
The ticking machines, the truncated and intimate stories, combine with the unfamiliar smell of the powders and teas the doctor grinds as he prepares puts me in a trance. My face melts through the hole in the table, my eyes are become unfocused, making the patterned linoleum blurry.
Then the ticking stops, not all at the same time. Some of the pulses end before the others do. Slowly I rise to the surface again.
The doctor comes in, says something like “ok”, and takes all the crocodile clips off the needles and hangs them on his coat hangers. And then in a faster time than seems possible he pulls out all the needles, seemingly hundreds.
Then he wipes my back with his dry hand and gives the base of my spine a bang or two with his balled fists; my signal to get dressed.
My partner asked me what my doctor had said was wrong with my shoulder. I said I didn’t know, that he didn’t actually say, or maybe I didn’t ask. It hadn’t seemed appropriate or necessary somehow.
So the next time I went I asked. It turned out I had a torn ligament in my shoulder and the needles he placed in the base of my spine — which were incredibly painful — were to stimulate regrowth of the cartilage between my compressed and calcifying vertebrae.
He did say not to worry, or gestures and subliminal messages to that effect, we are treating it. I don’t know that I want him to tell me more than he thinks I need to know. It may just be good enough that he makes me feel better.
He wipes my back with his dry hand and gives the base of my spine a bang or two