Tuning Up - Spring 2023

Knowledge Before the Fall

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Sometimes you simply can’t prepare for a seemingly inevitable outcome

By Clellan Coe | March 1, 2023
Illustration by Eric Hanson
Illustration by Eric Hanson

It would be nice to be a doctor, I’ve sometimes thought. If you began to feel something go wrong, you could diagnose yourself. You’d know what you were in for. There’d be no surprises, and all pain and discomfort would be mitigated by an awareness of the path ahead, the forks you’d come to, and the choices to be made. I don’t think being a doctor would make your stomach hurt less, or your head or your leg not ache, or your heart not break. But surely, with a fund of knowledge about symptoms, causes, effects, and—yes—pain, you would be better prepared. If not to cure your troubles, then at least to face them. This, anyway, was my feeling as I awoke one morning to what promised to be another day of pain. It wasn’t crippling, but it was limiting, and with each day, more draining, more demoralizing. It had started with two weeks of intermittent back and hip discomfort, which wasn’t bad enough to see a doctor about. Then I stooped to retrieve a pencil, and what had been discomfort now became constant pain, and after another two weeks, I was ready to give up. “Okay, you’ve got me, I’m a wimp. You win. Now take the pain away.” But the pain did not go away, and I couldn’t even wonder why, because all I knew was that it hurt. Why was this happening to me?

The doctor was of no help. This kind of complaint often cleared up, she told me. Patience. Meanwhile, there were painkillers. She also pointed out that many people evince similar pain with their slow gaits, their bent backs, their gritted teeth and grimaces. Surely I had noticed them? Join the crowd, she seemed to be saying. I stared at her. I’m active and fit. I’m never sick, and I never take medicine. I don’t eat meat. I hardly drink, don’t smoke, have coffee only in the morning, and run 50 kilometers a week. Run, not trot. You don’t know me, I thought.

It was true, she didn’t. I live in Asturias, in northern Spain, and because I had recently moved, this was my first visit to her office. My medical history was on her computer, but she hadn’t read it and couldn’t know that what I was suffering was not simply the trial of advancing age. Such is the reality of the overburdened Spanish medical system. But thanks to that same system, the painkillers I was prescribed were practically free. It hadn’t cost me a penny to see a doctor.

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