Near Death Experience


The family doctor we’d had for the past six years suddenly left his practice for undisclosed health reasons, and we assumed we would have a very hard time finding a new doctor. GPs are in short supply in British Columbia generally and seem to be in very short supply in Victoria. We have friends who rely on walk-in clinics.

Fortunately, we found one almost right away. He’s a doctor who moved here recently from interior BC to specialize in treating patients over 70. It seems like a smart move. If you treat only patients over 70, a lot of them won’t be with you long enough to develop negative attitudes. Twice a year I teach a two-day workshop on grammar and writing.  By the end of the two days, most of the students like me fine—I have developed a pleasant patter—and they are so relieved that it’s over that they’re inclined to be generous in their evaluations no matter what they actually think. I am keenly aware that if it went on for a day or two longer, not only would the evaluations turn nasty, but my life would probably be in danger. Teaching subjects like grammar and treating conditions like hemorrhoids are probably best done on a fairly short-term basis.

Our new doctor asked us to fill out a questionnaire that included questions about stuff like how much we drink and whether we smoke now or have ever smoked and for how long. I fudged a bit on the drinking but admitted that I had smoked for about forty years. I quit smoking with the help of nicotine gum, which I immediately became addicted to and chewed for about fifteen years. I chewed my last Nicorette while I was having a heart attack in an emergency room.

Given our history of smoking, the doctor ordered chest x-rays because, he said, if you catch lung cancer early, it can be treated. Somewhere I had read that by the time lung cancer shows up on an x-ray, it’s already too late to treat it, but I didn’t contradict him. After all, he’s the one with the official medical degree.

Anyway, in a week or so we had our chest x-rays. When the technician was checking mine to see if she needed to take another one, I heard her say, “Oh, my God!” I shot a look at her and saw that she was looking out the window at the rain and wind. Victorians are a bit wimpy about bad weather.

I forgot about the chest x-ray naturally. I didn’t have any symptoms like wheezing or coughing, and even though the doctor had said in the early stages, lung cancer is asymptomatic, I still held on to my own medical opinion that the x-ray would reveal cancer only in the late stages. Based on the facts, I wasn’t worried.

I was pondering my next move in an online chess game when the phone rang. It was the new doctor’s receptionist.

“Your x-rays are back, and the doctor would like to see you,” she said.

“There’s something wrong with the x-rays?” I asked, stupidly.

“I can’t say anything about the x-rays,” she said, I’m pretty sure adding “idiot” in her mind. “Let’s see, can you come in Wednesday at 3?”


It was Friday.  Six days to prepare psychologically, or perhaps psychotically, for the worst. In those six days, I developed a dry cough, imagined that my dizziness when getting up quickly from a prostate position could mean that the lung cancer had metastasized to my brain, decided that it was not death itself I feared but the process. I imagined chemo and radiation and slowly suffocating. I found myself hoping that Dante was way off the mark.  The dry cough got worse, and I had to keep clearing my throat. Who would come to my funeral?

On Wednesday at 3 o’clock I was sitting in the doctor’s office. About 3:20, the receptionist took me to an examination room. When the doctor came in, I said, “Well, that was a scary message.”

“My goodness, “he said, “what was the message?”

“Well, you know, that you wanted to see me. You found something in the x-ray?

“Yes, but nothing serious and urgent. If it were anything like that, I would have seen you the same day. I’m very sorry we worried you.”

The x-ray had shown a granuloma in one lung and some scar tissue that indicated I had had tuberculosis as a kid. Actually, I had already been told that years ago after another x-ray. Tuberculosis was endemic to the region where I grew up. Because the doctor had no access to previous x-rays, he wanted a CT scan.

Hypochondriacs die a thousand deaths just to keep in practice.


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