Like a drag queen with a day gender, three days a week I played man- secretary to Dr. Welk. You heard right. I turned a lot of heads behind the Rolodex. I especially caused a stir over the phone lines, with gentlemen callers—that’s where trouble for a man-secretary starts.
D-ring d-ring d-ring.
“Good morning. Dr. Welk’s office.”
“I’m sorry. Dr. Welk? Is that you?”
“No, this is his man-secretary.”
I started my career at the Royal Victoria Hospital in 1987, as a ward clerk. The first years, I was float staff, an institutional drifter, and I drew assignments on every imaginable unit, a tour of duty that took me from Palliative Care to Day Surgery. I stuck it out, the nomadic first years, until the union decorated me with benefits and a permanent position, which is as good as immortal.
One summer, the clerical union handed me over to Urology. My assignment was to fill in for one of the girls going on vacation. I spent three days working alongside Christine (off to Thessaloniki). From her I learned the ropes. Christine was an ace—in the secretarial business eighteen years, all but one in support of Dr. Welk. Dressed in black, a designated mourner, she was an expert hand-holder when need be, but made a blood sport of shielding Dr. Welk from stray referrals and from overly demanding and hectoring clients.
“It’s the families you worry about,” Christine said my second day. “Really. His patients are compliant, but the caregivers are murder.”
Christine could cancel a clinic on a dime and reschedule forty patients, sprinkled over the following couple of weeks, in the windows of time she kept open just in case. My own organizational skills were nil. I made fair to intelligent use of the hold button. By the third day, I had made progress on the automatic dialing keys. But overall, I made a mess. I had no head for data or details. I never put X-rays or charts or files back where I found them. Christine found my banana in the filing cabinet.
When the time came, Christine was more than a bit worried about leaving him in my hands. Without any of those protective instincts loyal secretaries build up over years in the line of service, how was the good Dr. Welk going to survive? It was going to be a disaster. I had virtually no office experience.
What did I call myself, anyway?
Dr. Welk was one of the old guard, a knight of the Royal College of Medicine. Getting on in years, Dr. Welk’s practice had shrunk to gentleman-farmer proportions. Christine warned me, “He doesn’t take on anyone new. He’s exhausted by the end of the week.”
Dr. Welk tended to a rough patch of seniors on the verge of prostate cancer. They were a grumpy and prideful lot, hampered by continence troubles. Many of them experienced hearing problems as well. Often a medicated hue candied their complaints. Happy hour for these menfolk was short, cut down to rolling up a sleeve and getting their flu shot.
“I’m sorry. Dr. Welk? I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“I’m not Dr. Welk.”
Dr. Welk himself walked a fine line between patient and healer. He too sniffed of mothballs, of impossible heartbreak, like the glassy-eyed men who frequented the waiting room, with voices that had thinned to whistling. When these men called the doctor’s office and I answered—instead of lovely Christine—my voice dried them up.
“Who is this?”
“This is his office speaking,” I said. A little cryptic, perhaps.
Time passed, what seemed like an aging process.
“Can I help you, sir?”
More unwilling silence. At the other end, I could fathom the scene: seventy-two-year-old male in a kitchen chair, hand cupped over the mouthpiece, wishing his damn wife had called, like she usually did. Damn.
“Do you need ASSISTANCE?”
I had to prompt the old-timer, in a screen-saver mode, back from his idling reverie.
“I have an appointment with Dr. Welk.”
Forget him. I put the line on hold and left him there, a black square blinking, blinking, blinking.
With Christine out of town, I settled into an aneurysmal bulge in the wall alongside a light brown Canon copier. My booth was set in the passageway that shunted traffic between the urology ward and the departmental offices. I had no privacy, not even four walls.
Me and the Canon were not a perfect match. The Canon warmed up to a complicated psyche. It suffered from an eating disorder related, no doubt, to low self-esteem. It could not sort or group to save its toner. The head administrative assistant led the charge against a malfunctioning enlargement/reduction key.
The Canon repairperson, Josée, carried a foam-insulated metal briefcase packed with screwdrivers and a pager clipped to the breast pocket of her full-length blue overalls. I envied her sense of mission. Josée travelled, she responded to urgent calls, she solved problems. I know she felt some sympathy for me, stuck combing my hair behind an orange wall separator, arranging my evenings, pretending to be busy.
That was the worst thing: pretending to be busy. Working but not doing anything. Manslaughtery on the ego.
Installed outside the main offices, I was first in line for treats when the drug reps came through.
“Andrew, am I right? Coffee? Can I serve you sugar?”
Stuck on a first name basis with complete strangers, the troops from Berlex, Ciba-Geigy, Abbott and Parke-Davis sweated eau de friendly.
Over the summer, I also kept the company of medical students, residents and nurses, all of whom frequented the mighty Canon.
“How much do you have?”
“Just a few pages.”
“I put in a long job.”
“I’ll come back”
“I gotta go.”
I followed this copy talk with Mamet ears. Day after day, I bore witness.
The maltreatment of books, hardback especially, by the so-called caring professions, was astounding. Medical students were by far the worst offenders. I remember one student in particular, burdened by Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine. She approached the cubicle with a discus-thrower’s look of intense rehearsal. Textbook at the hip, she grunted, pivoted and swung its weight onto the copier. And then, by God, with Harrison’s prone, she cracked the spine, pushing, flat-palmed, elbows locked, prepared to do chest compressions. When the light flashed, she stiffened and turned her head to one side, so as not to watch.
It made me think of people on film drowning other kinds of people.
“Oh, sorry to disturb you. I was calling Dr. Welk’s office.”
“I am his office.”
“What happened to Christine?”
“There’s no Christine here."
One of my tasks was to book appointments for a treatment for kidney stones called Extracorporeal Shock Wave Lithotripsy, or ESWL. I recorded names and addresses, and instructed clients to fast twelve hours in advance and to bring along their X-rays so the doctor wouldn’t have to repeat them. When they arrived for therapy, with limps and pained expressions, I had them undress and read magazines. Then I swiped their blue insurance cards and stamped consent sheets.
People traveled hundreds of miles to have their ten to fifteen minutes of lithotripsy. It’s all to do with sound waves. Basically, a machine blasts and crunches your urinary stones with shock waves. Afterward, in the recovery room, juice is poured and the pulverized—having been treated to a rock concert like no other—are encouraged to pee. The sand and gravel are passed out in the urine, and this insoluble mixture is captured in a transparent bag, a plastic reservoir that is tied to the bed frame. When I crossed through the recovery room, I noticed, on my way to the kitchenette, that the urine that pools down the leg of these beds, forebodingly, acquires a sangria blush, sometimes a darkish pinot noir.
One day a week I covered for Dr. Billings’ secretary, Susan. I had three locals patched into a single line.
“Dr. Welk. Dr. Billings. Lithotripsy.”
Set the right cadence and this greeting would have served—if not for Dr. Welk’s hapless bunch. Most of them hung up then called five minutes later to try again. Wise to their tomfoolery, I let the answering machine record their whereabouts. Then I launched a surprise callback attack.
“Hello. Dr. Welk’s office calling. We’re awfully busy here and we have no time to play games …”
“Well this is indeed a pleasure. Thank you for calling me at home, Dr. Welk.”
Dr. Billings’ practice brought in a whole different set of gentleman callers, for Billings’ expertise was in the area of sexual dysfunction. Impotence, not infertility. He was doing serious work in electro-ejaculation. He had also acquired an interest in a group of men born under the sign of the crooked penis—induratio penis plastica. I was entirely in the dark about this lobby group, until I received an anonymous call from a man who had questions about a picture of his penis.
“This is Dr. Billings’ office.”
“Oh,” said he. He wanted to speak with Susan, Dr. Billings’ go-to girl.
“Can I be of help to you?”
“I was calling for Dr. Billings’ secretary.”
“What happened to Susan?”
“I had her deactivated.”
“She’s off today.”
In this population there is a design flaw, a dangerous sideways or downward curve that can, literally, throw you off. And apparently if you have one of these things, it acts up at the worst time. Dr. Billings performed a neat little operation.
“I need to send you people a picture of my penis, isn’t that right?”
I closed my eyes. It will pass.
“You mean an X-ray?”
He wasn’t sure, or he wouldn’t say.
“You mean the doctor told you to book an appointment with radiology to have some films taken?”
“No, it’s not what you think. A KUB. A kidney-ureter-bladder film.”
“I was told differently.”
A week or so later, opening the mail, a Polaroid slipped out. I immediately understood the business about the films.
“What are you looking at, Andrew?”
I wasn’t sure myself. A jiggled focus, a grainy Loch Ness quality, purely amateur.
“It’s Andrew, am I right?”
“What have you got there?”
Induratio penis plastica.
Self-portrait style, snapped from the nipple, overlooking the main concourse.
“None of my business. I’m gonna leave something here for Susan.”
“She wanted one of our pens.”