*Featured Artwork: “No You Can’t Bring Your Monster” by Elizabeth Cassidy
As a child, I was convinced I had come upon a dark secret unknown to most adults, that the motivation that inspired most doctors and dentists was a delight in the sadistic torture of children. It never crossed my mind that adults had once been children too and so might also know the secret. It was clear to me instead that my mother had been duped by the doctors’ kind demeanor in her presence, her obvious concern for my health and well-being, and their assurances that everything they did was “for my own good.” I knew better; I saw the transformation when my mother left the room.
My distrust of doctors started when I was five years old. Early one gray winter morning, my mother roused me from a dreamy sleep, dressed me quickly in warm clothing, and drove us off without any breakfast to a local doctor’s office. Still somewhat sleepy, I vaguely remember being led into a room with a cot in the center covered with a white sheet. Suddenly, out of nowhere, adult arms and hands tackled me and flung me onto the cot. Terrified by the unexpected and unprovoked attack, I began to yell, kick, and squirm. In an instant an adult shadow figure immobilized me, throwing straps across my body and cinching me tightly to the cot. And in a moment of choking terror, someone clamped a face mask across my nose and mouth and let my screams and gasps pull in the acrid, numbing scent that stole my consciousness. Ether was not a benign drug; it made my senses ring and tingle with a sensation so intense I felt myself expand and shrink with each vibrating clang of my pulsating head. In that netherworld, I dreamt of an endless army of iron Scottish terriers marching forward, the lead terrier atop bounding across her troops. With each clash of metal upon metal, a mist of ether filled the air. That indescribable sweet-caustic scent made my body tissue cringe and writhe, rolling my whole being in a wave of nausea. I awoke in one of those waves when my tonsillectomy was over, vomiting in gut-wrenching spasms over the edge of a cot in the corner of a dark room.
With the last wretch, the anger hit full bore. From years unobtrusively listening to the men who drove my father’s trucks talk in English and Spanish profanities amongst themselves, I summoned the great store of what I knew to be the foulest words in both languages and rolled a never-ending chorus of perverse insults at the brutal doctor and his staff. The fact that I had no idea what the words meant was irrelevant to me because I knew that he knew the meaning. And even more important, swearing so freely with no one able to contain my vile ranting was empowering, a retribution for the paralyzing control they had exerted over me. My vision of the world of medicine changed that day, and vanilla ice cream was little consolation.
After that, my visits to doctors and dentists were always tinged with paranoia, the need to be prepared to fight for my survival at any unexpected moment. At 7 years of age, I entered the dentist’s office with the same sense of caution, observing the scores of instruments indicating a promise of pain and torture. I was a fairly cooperative patient at first, letting the dentist peer into my mouth since all he held in his hand was a small round mirror on a metal rod. But that all changed when, after retreating to a table out of my view, he returned to my side with a large syringe in his hand and asked me to “open wide.” In the memory of my child’s eye, the syringe was a foot long with a six-inch shining needle. I don’t remember a thought even crossing my mind; I just reacted instantly. One quick kick to the dentist’s hand sent the syringe flying into the air; the second blow to his stomach sent him reeling backward so I could take a flying leap from the chair and escape his sinister grasp. With the look of a doe who has just dodged the hunter’s bullet, I entered the waiting room into the arms of my shocked and humiliated mother. I don’t remember if I was spanked or punished; I only remember feeling that my view of the world had been validated. Clearly, it was up to me to be ever-watchful, to fight the hidden forces that took pleasure in hurting children behind closed doors.
Dr. Zincon had developed a word-of-mouth reputation for his innovative treatment of upper respiratory problems. His treatment of several well-known movie stars was cited as a validation of his healing arts. As part of years of searching for an explanation and solution for my long chain of winter colds, and what was later found to be bouts of allergic rhinitis, my mother looked to Dr. Zincon as the long-sought panacea. At age 8, I found myself in Dr. Zincon’s office, sitting in what looked like a huge dental chair. After a brief examination and some words about a series of treatments promising a miraculous end to my suffering, my mother was escorted out of the room and replaced by his rotund and kindly nurse Mildred, who was to hold my hand during the process. Dr. Zincon took out two metal skewers, attached large cotton balls to their points, and dipped them in iodine. Mildred and I gripped hands tightly as he shoved these, one at a time, up into my nasal cavities. The white-hot, searing pain is indescribable. It was as if a red hot poker fresh from the fireplace had been shoved into and lay lodged in the space between my eyes.
My mother’s positive experiences with doctors as a child in her extended stays in Orthopaedic Hospital, his grand reputation, and the hope of my improved health probably convinced her that my account of the experience was all drama and exaggeration. But the next trip required my literally being dragged into the car and the office as I tried to fend off entering this torture chamber once again. On the third visit, my mother let go of my arm for a moment as she opened his office door. I took my only chance; I bolted. Before anyone knew what was happening, I was outside of the medical building and running at top speed through the parking lot towards the fence behind the building. Thin and wiry, I fit perfectly in the narrow space between the building and the fence, a space so narrow that no one thought to look there until long into the search. By then, mercifully, my appointment time had passed, and I was spared with my mother’s scolding tempered with relief. But this had made my point. I gave my account of the torturous treatment that had led me to such an extreme to neighbors and relatives who had heard about the incident, and more and more adults were won over to my vision of the dark world of Dr. Zincon. I spent many years as a child daydreaming about the revenge I would someday exact upon him. Vats of acid and sharp blades frequently figured in my elaborate plots.
Luckily for Dr. Zincon, I did not meet him again until I was sixteen. It was one of those strange happenstances; he and his wife were guests along with my family at an evening meal at my brother’s godparents’ home. My murderous musings were a thing of the past, by then I had been schooled in forgiveness and charity by the nuns for many years. Dr. Zincon was now a man in his early seventies, balding, slightly stooped, and accompanied by his talkative wife who regularly made openly belittling comments about him. My mother pulled me aside and whispered that under unclear circumstances, he had lost his medical license and practice years ago. I had my own suspicions regarding the cause, but said nothing.
As the evening progressed and I watched this soft-spoken, self-effacing elderly man repeatedly humiliated by his wife, all the venomous rancor I had held for years completely dissipated. Part of letting go might have been seeing that I had survived, and the world had meted out more justice to him than I ever could have. But as I sat there, I found myself giving him the only attentive ear in the room and feeling genuine compassion for this broken spirit before me.
I made sure my children’s doctors were competent and kind, and they were never left alone behind closed doors for medical treatment. I stood watch for them with even greater potential fierceness than I had summoned for my own protection. When my seven-year-old younger son was hospitalized overnight for an asthma attack, I stayed at his bedside, ever-vigilant that terror would not be added to his hospital experience. As he was resting in the oxygen tent, a phlebotomist entered the room to take a blood sample. Ordinarily a tough and fearless child, he had such a dread of needles that it often took fifteen minutes to half an hour for him to gain the courage to finally allow any procedures that involved piercing his skin. When my son saw the phlebotomist’s equipment, he quickly announced that he “didn’t want any needles.” Seeing his reluctance, the phlebotomist immediately grabbed his arm and pinned it to the bed. My hand was on the phlebotomist’s arm almost instantaneously. It was irrelevant to me that this muscular, 300 plus pound Pacific Islander could have effortlessly tossed me across the room, I pressed my fingertips with steady pressure into his fleshy forearm. “You’re going to wait until he’s ready,” I said calmly, my eye contact cold and serious. I released my grip only after he had let go of my son’s arm, and he sat quietly as I gently helped my son prepare himself for the dreaded puncture.
I know now that there is no conspiracy in the medical community against children, but I remember the world the way I saw it as a child. I have developed a respect for childhood demons and the strength you build in fighting them.