The Day the Blue Line Smelled Like Bologna Sandwiches
“Everyday is a winding road!”
As I reached over and squeezed the radio alarm off, it was entirely possible that part of me was still asleep, dreaming of what my outstretched arm was doing to Sheryl Crow’s jolly trachea. But, as my eyes adjusted to the spray of the winter sunlight, I started to recall who I was and why my entire being was fighting to stay tucked in the warmth of my flannel-encased down comforter. However, guided by my super-human strength, I was able to stumble from the comfort of my bed to the icy tile of my bathroom floor (note: super-human strength wielded from an unbelievable urge to urinate). As I Sonicared™ my teeth and tried to make out my face in the mirror, I identified some of the muscles in my face. Zygomaticus major and minor. Depressor palpebrae inferioris. And, my all-time favorite, levator palpebrae superioris alequae nasi. Huzzah!
The shower water was warm enough to give my body a temporary thaw, and I soaked for at least twenty minutes – most of which I spent thinking about what to eat for lunch. Retreating back to my bedroom, I picked out a dark-blue fitted button-down with thin white stripes. Solid dark-gray tie. Slim black pleated pants sitting on hard-leather shoes. Then, I grabbed my short white lab coat, sported by all medical students, which seemed to be growing shorter on me by the day.
Once outside my front door, the cold Chicago air shot straight up my nose to the depths of my brain. The snow glistened a fantastic white – what heaven would look like if its patrons were afforded sunglasses. Squinting provided no relief, and almost walking into a hunched-over bum made me give in to being blinded by the light. As I walked on, I flipped up the collar of my black pea overcoat and tried to sink away from the stiff arctic breeze.
The El train was packed. It smelled like everyone around me had woken up and smothered themselves in bologna sandwiches before leaving for work. One of the bologna-scented men, squeezed into a dark suit at least two sizes too small, eyed my white coat. We made eye contact, and gave each other a brief nod. I was glad he didn’t say anything.
The community health clinic was in an area about as rough as Chicago gets. As I approached the building, a loafing twenty-something-year-old guy draped in oversized black and gold fashion sweats asked me for a light. When I told him I didn’t have one, his eyes shifted away, and I promptly fell off the face of his planet.
I had been coming here for the past month to be Dr. E’s shadow. She was a spiritual woman who had devoted over thirty years of her life to caring for community youth. She loved her work, and it showed at all times. She seemed to remember every detail about every family. If a patient was new, her smiling eyes and confident posture projected compassion and a voice that said, “It’s O.K., you’re with me now. We’ll get to the bottom of this.” Everyone adored her.
Whenever I went in to interview the patients before Dr. E entered, I tried to be as personable as possible. I would smile when appropriate, make good eye contact, ask questions about life in general. I tried to show that I cared. But the kids and their families treated me as they would a door-to-door salesman pushing carpet cleaner on their hardwood floors. And I didn’t blame them. I had no idea what I was doing. And who would let a guy who had no idea what he was doing anywhere near their children?
When Dr. E would enter the room, the patient, parents, and I would all breathe a sigh of relief. The tension was whisked away.
No one had given me the code to the front door of the Peds area, so I still had to find creative ways to sneak back there. Today, I would make my entrance riding the wave of a custodian who wielded a mop and bucket. I quietly entered the doctor’s area – a cramped room filled with charts, loose papers, sack lunches, and people searching for misplaced forms. Dr. E was already in with a patient, so I decided to look on the schedule to see who was up next.
“Good morning, Mike. How was the blue line today?”
I looked over my shoulder to find the heart-shaped face and big, glossy eyes of Christine, a lovely Vietnamese resident four years my senior. I smiled.
“Actually,” I replied earnestly, “today, it smelled like bologna sandwiches. Day-old bologna sandwiches.”
She crinkled her nose. “Eeew, gross. Hmm. So was that better or worse than the dirty gym socks it smelled like yesterday?” We both stood there for a moment in quiet contemplation.
“I think the socks were better,” I concluded.
She let out a small laugh and gave a nod of approval. I was sixty percent sure that I was in love with this woman. A patient stepped in and interrupted to ask her a question. I turned to the schedule on the computer to find the name of Dr. E’s next patient. Then, I got up and walked down the hall until I found the chart on the door cubby that had the same name. I knocked, then entered.
There stood nine-year-old Moses, a skinny black boy with an oval-shaped head, facing a woman sitting very upright in her chair. Probably his grandmother, she had a full head of jet-black hair, carefully fashioned into a beehive, and a sharp, stern face that had a hint of past hardships. Moses retreated to his seat next to grandma and sat quietly.
“Hello, my name is Michael, and I am a medical student working under Dr. E. I was wondering if I could ask you and Moses a few questions before Dr. E comes in.” I felt the need to name-drop excessively, out of fear that I would be told to go talk to the wall. I extended my hand to grandma for a handshake, and she took it with both of hers.
“Very nice to meet you, Doctor. I’m Bernadette, Moses’ grandmother and guardian,” she replied cordially. Her eyes carried a tinge of warmth.
“Actually, I’m only a medical student. There’s no need to call me doctor.” I found it tiresome to always have to correct people, but knew that I was obligated to do so.
“Now son,” her tone became more serious, “I heard you the first time. But if you wanna ask me questions like you’re my doctor, I’m gonna wanna treat you like you’re my doctor. Otherwise, we’re just wasting each other’s time now, aren’t we?” She had a point. She also scared me a bit.
“Yes, you’re right. I really appreciate that and I’ll try to do whatever I can for your grandson. So, what brings you in today?”
Appeased by my answer, her temperament softened, and she started to tell me Moses’ story.
“Well, see, Moses has been getting lightheaded. Sometimes it happens when he’s at school, and sometimes it happens when he’s just sittin’ around the house. Then, I found out that he was always throwin’ away his lunches at school.”
“I don’t do it all the time, Grandma! Only when you give me those ham and cheese sandwiches!”
“But baby, I can’t be givin’ you PB&J every day now, can I? That’s not nutritious enough for a growing boy like you.” She turned to me. “He’s a real picky eater. All he likes to eat is hotdogs and sweets.”
Moses hung his head in silence. He agreed with his grandma. I knew how he felt.
“I was a picky eater too, Buddy. I didn’t like anything. But your grandma is right. Sometimes you just gotta eat what you don’t like.”
Moses nodded. He had heard this speech before, but he still took it to heart. Looking at Moses, I saw a beautiful kid. He was smart and he knew right from wrong. Aside from the discarded lunches, you could tell he listened to his grandma.
“How are you doing in school?” I asked him. He looked up.
“Honor roll,” he replied confidently. A huge smile grew across his grandma’s face.
“That’s right. My baby is on the A honor roll.” She patted him on the head. He allowed himself a small, proud smile.
“Wow, that’s great! Keep it up!” This was my first time all month I had heard that a kid was on the honor roll.
Here was a sweet kid full of life and hope. He had a sharp grandma who loved him and gave him the care and attention that he needed. But all I could picture was what he’d be when he was eighteen. Caged by the narrow world that surrounded him, he wouldn’t come close to fulfilling his potential. He would lose interest in school. He would chart his course alongside the mediocre characters that surrounded him. His unique abilities and motivations would be lost in sea of poverty, despair, and lame music videos. He would cause his grandma many sleepless nights.
I felt guilty thinking like this. Was I becoming some sort of racist? It seemed likely. I’m sure that wasn’t what the program coordinator had in mind when she set me up with this rotation.
I finished the history and physical without finding anything of note. I thanked Moses and his grandma and told them I would go and consult with Dr. E. I went back to the doctor’s area to find Dr. E writing some notes in her chart. She was wearing a dark-colored dress that extended mid-calf, a cream-colored blouse with a subtle floral print, and a long blue lab coat. On her lapel were pins of the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon, the American flag, and Winnie the Pooh – which had been given to her by a patient.
“So how is our young Moses doing today?” she inquired without looking up.
“He’s doing okay, seems to be healthy overall. Active. Bright. Good social support. But he’s been having headaches that could be caused by his propensity to throw away his lunch.” Dr. E nodded and laughed when she heard this. She finished making notes in her chart, closed it, and stood.
“OK, let’s go have a look at him.”
In the back of my mind, I knew I wouldn’t be working at a place like this once I finished school. When kids like Moses get you down, you know there’s something wrong.
I ran into Christine in the hallway.
“What are you thinking for lunch today?” she asked.
“I’ll leave it up to you today.” Something in my tone made her stop. She tilted her head as she furrowed her brow and gave me a look of concern. I turned away and followed Dr. E into the patient’s room.