One of the craziest things about growing older is that your doctors start to seem so young.
Somewhere around age 34 or 35, you’ll look around and realize that subset of unicorn people who could actually save your life at a second’s notice — doctors, if you insist on being formal — are now the age of your best friends’ baby brothers and sisters. Those same little rascals who would eavesdrop on your gossip and blackmail you for candy can now tell, after merely eyeballing your throat, that you’re going to need a heavy dose of antibiotics to clear up that mess.
Depending on your age, it’s possible you visit the same primary care physician you’ve had since birth, and if you do, there’s a chance he is still bitter about not being able to smoke cigars while you’re on the examination table. When I was 12, my childhood doctor passed away after suffering from emphysema. Since my teen years, I’ve passed my body around to various middle-aged men with the occasional middle-aged woman sprinkled in once I got to college and booked my own appointments. They were all fine, I guess. Although, to be honest, they didn’t have to work very hard with me: a few cases of strep throat; a handful of fevers and colds; and on occasion, the insertion of a needle, the drawing of blood and the shipping of body fluids to labs only to find out nothing at all.
I recently entered yet another doctor’s office. I received a glowing recommendation about the practice from a friend, so I made an appointment with a man whose name sounded melodic. Actually, he was the only doctor who could see me at the time, and, considering how I only had hours left to live and was slowly being murdered by my left sinus, I jumped on it.
Dr. Beautiful Name bounced into the room after, I should add, leaving me waiting no longer than two minutes. I considered this Exhibit A that he hasn’t been practicing long enough. Doesn’t he know patients expect him to wield his Alpha Doctor power by letting them wait for at least 30 minutes, just long enough to make us imagine he’s in another room saving someone’s limb from amputation? My time is not as valuable as a doctor’s, and we can’t establish a relationship built on trust if he doesn’t make an effort to perpetuate that lie.
Despite his punctuality, I liked him immediately. He smiled, and we made eye contact. As I explained how horrible I felt, his eyes narrowed, and he tilted his head and raised his hands to his chin. This guy was really listening! Then my brief examination began. Throughout it, he asked me about my two young kids and confided in me that he and his wife had just had a baby who refused to sleep at night. Awww. He instructed me to breathe deeply, and I pictured our families meeting, his wife and I bonding over tantrums and sleepless nights — no one is shielded from the anarchy brought on by toddlers, not even a doctor’s wife.
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Judging by his full head of black hair, creaseless skin and, of course, the infant at home, I’d put him at 31, maybe 32 years of age. At my request, he prescribed a stupidly expensive nasal spray, even though my diagnosis was: “Viral. Give it two weeks.” His compliance told me he was either young enough to understand no one under a certain age has time to be sick (not with all we have to do these days) or proves I’m getting to a crotchety age where I can boss around young doctors.
I choose to believe it’s the former.
Aside from that whole I-spent-a-decade-in-medical-school-and-can-tell-you-what-your-corpus-callosum-does thing, my millennial doctor and I share similar life experiences. He didn’t talk down to me. Instead, he explained everything I needed to know about my illness and medical options and insisted I follow up with him in one week to see how I was feeling. It’s possible he just has a good bedside manner, a trait he shares with millions of doctors of various ages.
But here’s where I felt genuinely impressed by him: We spoke for a few minutes about diet, nutrition and wellness. He asked me about my stress levels and explained how they may have been contributing to my illness. I joke about his willingness to prescribe medicine, but that only came after I insisted I was a big baby and couldn’t wait this virus out. In all of my years of seeing older doctors, perhaps because of my bad luck or medical trends at the time or both, I never had a conversation with one about nutrition and well-being. Dr. Beautiful Name was clued in about more than just pharmaceuticals. I can’t help but wonder whether his holistic approach is a sign of the times — a change for the better.
With my rave review of my young doctor out of the way, this is the part where I confess that, if I were truly sick or, heaven forbid, something happened to one of my children or my husband, I would breathe easier with a far more experienced doctor by their side. If it came down to life or death, I’d want to see gray hair, crow’s feet, and someone who scowls at anyone else in the room who dares to crack a smile and doesn’t take their condition seriously. I want to know that she has prescribed every medicine known to man, is aware of the ones that are rubbish, and is so in control of every situation in every hospital room on the floor that she doesn’t have time to chat about the weather. When it really matters, I’m still locked into the ancient idea that the older and more sullen a doctor, the wiser and better at her job she must be.
But I’m 150 percent wrong about young doctors, old doctors, all doctors. Placing my confidence in anyone in any job because she was born before a certain year is irrational. Placing my confidence in an older doctor is the child in me longing for protection when she doesn’t feel well and equating age and experience with a protector. The older I get, the more acutely aware I’ll become of a global takeover by young professionals. And that’s a good thing because their joy, energy and willingness to embrace change are crucial — and infectious.
As old as he makes me feel at times, I’m not straying from my wonderful millennial doctor. And please don’t tell his wife I said any of this.