The Doctor Thing

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One minute he seemed fine, the next pale and tenuous. "My head is killing me," he moaned, and curled on his side in the grass. It was late, 2:00am, and we'd been soaking in a hot spring after a night-time photo shoot in the Eastern Sierra. The water was just right: hot but not scalding, mineral but not too sulfurous, the pool lined with silken mud that slipped soft against the skin.

A little learning, Pope said, is a dangerous thing. Knowing too much isn't so great either: as my friend lay suffering in the darkness, I couldn't help running lists of diagnoses through my head. The most likely thing was dehydration and exhaustion, but what about altitude sickness? Our shoot had been at nearly 10,000 feet, and we weren't acclimated. Or worse, could it be an aneurysm? The doctor thing, it turns out, can't readily be turned off. Unknowing is impossible, and 30 years' experience can weigh heavily.

It's delicate, to be sure, a balance between intrusion and concern -- especially in settings where some may not know me as a doctor. Do I cross a line and risk altering a friendship with unbidden personal disclosures? Or do I hold back, wonder what might be going on, and hope it isn't serious?

I sat down beside him, and put my hand on his shoulder. The moon was still high, cool silver highlighting his pain. "Tell me about this headache," I said. He relaxed a bit, and we talked softly, at first tentative but soon more confident. Before long, the moonlight showed relief in his eyes: someone was here to listen, to care, to help.

Next day, he was fine. We didn't speak of it again, but we both knew things had changed. Secrets had been shared, yes, but more important was the trust that bound us now, precious, sure, and weightless.


With a Perspective, I'm Peggy Hansen.