Married to my beeper

For a doctor, having a pager is a little like being in a relationship -- only without the sex.


Jeff Drayer
January 7, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

They say it always happens when you least expect
it.

My life was at a crossroads. I had just graduated
medical school, and only a week before had moved
across the country to a state and coast I'd never even
seen before. It was time to start my internship, and I
felt unprepared and nervous. Most distressing of all,
my student days were over -- it was time for me to get
serious. I was about to become a doctor.

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Romance was the furthest thing from my mind as
the blinding San Diego sun cast shadows of palm trees
upon the walls of Mercy Hospital that hot June
morning. I sat down with the other new interns in
the orientation room, unaware that fate was just about
to tap me on the shoulder, then slug me right in the
mouth.

But as my new co-workers began cheerily
introducing themselves to each other between facefuls
of bagel and coffee, one of the office managers pulled
me off to the side. "There's someone I want you to
meet," he said, smiling secretively. Without another
word, he walked off. Confused, I followed him past the
crowd and through a nearly hidden doorway into a small
back room. I looked around and suddenly, my stomach
dropped, my head began to swim. That's when I first
saw her.

I remember it all like it was yesterday. I was
wearing a blue shirt and goofy suspenders; she was
wearing a pair of Duracell AA's. It wasn't long before
pager #5708 and I went everywhere together. You might
say we were joined at the hip. And why not? After all,
this was a time in my life when I'd begun to take on
new responsibilities. I was no longer just worried
about passing tests and getting grades -- I had real,
living patients to take care of. Having her by my side
gave me the confidence I needed.

Though she rarely spoke, I sensed a hidden
complexity within. Just slipping my hand around her
smooth back gave me the sensation of something
electric inside her. Yet despite her soft-spoken
nature, I always knew that if there was something
important going on, she'd tell me. And she was the
only one who could interrupt me any time she wanted. I
even found it kind of cute, the way she'd cut in
mid-sentence.

Like the time one of my patients decided that since he was Julius Caesar, congestive heart failure
was not nearly enough to keep him from his appointed
duties of taxation, orgies and constructing
aqueducts; he therefore had to leave the hospital at
once. Had my girl not alerted me to the situation,
perhaps I wouldn't have arrived in time to convince
him that his empire would be well-controlled for another four days while we removed all the
fluid that was overloading his heart. And we'd never
have learned to fear the Ides of March.

Of course, as with any new love, I was eager yet
apprehensive about introducing her to my parents.
Would they understand how closely we'd bonded in such
a short time? Would they mind that she was black?
Fortunately, when the time came, my darling little
#5708 was up to the task. In fact, she dominated the
dinner conversation, rarely going a minute or two
without speaking up about something. And whenever she
spoke, you could be sure it was about something of
consequence. I could not have been more proud.

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Then there was the first time we slept
together. I guess you always remember your first time.
I lay awake, feeling even hotter than the 125 degrees
of the tiny fourth-floor call room. Sure, there were
over 300 sick patients waiting just beyond my door.
But all my senses were filled with her, clinging to my
waist, snuggled tight against me. She seemed, at
times, to just glow there in the dark. How often did
she wake me that night? There was the time she told
me that a patient's leg was turning cold and blue,
forcing me to spend the next three hours slowly
injecting clot-dissolving medication into it. But all
I remember is that I didn't mind a bit. I was in
heaven.

Yes, for weeks my heart would sing every time I
heard her crisp, melodic voice. I didn't even notice
that we were starting to go out a lot less. But my
friends noticed. First it was just whispering, but
soon there were accusations. I never went out
drinking. I never played basketball. They only saw me
at the hospital, and even then I was always with her.

At first I argued back, told them that they just
didn't understand. I told them that she made me feel
important; she made me feel like a doctor. Didn't they
see?

But slowly I began to realize they were right. I
was withdrawing. It had become just the two of us, and
for as much as I loved being with her, my social life
was starting to suffer. Though at first we
had whispered of all sorts of exciting things like
codes and emergencies, soon it seemed all we could
talk about were drugs I had ordered incorrectly or lab
results I needed to pick up.

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In fact, I found that she was becoming more and
more controlling. Soon the nervous excitement of going
out together at night began to fade. She was always
the one deciding where we'd go and what we'd do, and
then oftentimes she'd force me to get up and leave
right in the middle of the movie or dinner. And she
was always interrupting me when I talked. I hated
that. Maybe, I thought, I wasn't ready for this kind
of commitment.

I guess I should have said something then, but
instead I just made excuses for her. It was a phase
she was going through, I told myself. It
would pass eventually, and things would settle down. But it
didn't. And soon, her high-pitched voice began to
sound more shrill than anything else.

"Why weren't you at conference today?" she'd
sneer accusingly. "Why didn't you put that diabetic on
a low-sugar diet?" She knew my soft spots and had
learned to push all my buttons (though, to be fair,
I'd been pushing hers for quite some time). I was
growing tired, and began to curse that office manager
who'd introduced us so long ago. He must have known
about her. Why did he do this to me? He was no friend,
I thought. He tricked me into this, never letting on
that under her tight, shiny young exterior was a cold,
metallic woman.

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So with whatever strength I had left, I fought. I
wanted my life back, I'd shout. I didn't want to
spend my nights hearing her drone on about my
patients' elevated potassium levels and dislike of
hospital food. I said I could change, but she told me
she couldn't, that this was "how she was made." We had taken each other for
better or worse, she'd remind me. I was stuck.

It was true, I realized. For all the misery she
had caused, I still needed her, and had come to depend on her.

After all, if it weren't for #5708, I never would have made it to Mrs.
McClure's room in time to convince her not to sign out of the hospital because she was in danger of dying from her irregular heartbeat. And then there was the time when my pager pulled me out of
lunch to tell me Mr. Rosenthal's blood pressure had
dropped to near fatal levels, and I was able to get there
in time to help save him.

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Indeed, for all her faults, she did have an
uncanny sense -- call it woman's intuition -- about what was
going on with my patients, and when they needed me.
To be honest, I don't know how other doctors,
especially those in the olden days of medicine,
managed to stay single. Who warned them of danger?
Who told them of the emergencies? Yes, my wife
certainly had a lot of downsides. But I suppose I
could not have made it without her.

When that happened, I realized that there was
only one thing to do. Marriage is forever, and if this
was going to work, I simply had to come to accept
#5708 for who she was and that she'd be with me for
the rest of my life.

Today, #5708 and I have come to what I consider
somewhat of a truce. Yes, she continues to wake me in
the night, usually for no good reason at all. And
of course, she still keeps me from doing all the
things I'd like. But, I now realize, marriage is a
partnership, and can't always just be about what I
want. So we still spend our long days and short
nights together. Sometimes she gets run down, and
sometimes so do I. And when that happens, we just
attempt a smile, recharge each other, and steel
ourselves for another day.


Jeff Drayer

Jeff Drayer is the author of "The Cost-Effective Use of Leeches and Other Musings of a Medical School Survivor." He lives in Boston, where he is doing a dermatology residency.

MORE FROM Jeff Drayer

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