In Sickness and in Health

Am I a breathless, balding, borderline diabetic with a high carcinogenic risk?

Or a hypochondriac?

Do I have rotting teeth, deteriorating hearing and a hernia?

Or is it just a phase I’m going through? (To quote Mr Godley and Mr Crème, admittedly somewhat out of context).

We’ve been here just over two months. In that time, a period when I’ve only managed to get to New York City twice, I’ve visited my local dental surgery on four separate occasions, seen two different doctors, two surgeons and spent a whole morning in a health centre (‘hospital’ to you and me, only cleaner) where some unspeakable act was performed on – or rather in – my drugged body.

Ever since watching ‘42-up’ (the original BBC reality TV series, where the lives of a group of different individuals are tracked on film every seven years) I’ve had a romantic notion about turning forty-two. As far as I could discern from the documentary, it appears to be a time in life when one becomes happily resigned to one’s lot in life, finally letting go of those hopeless dreams and failed aspirations that were the source of such torment in one’s thirties. Forty-two, I had decided, was a good age to be.

The programme, though, failed to mention the physical decline. Had it told the whole truth, I might have resisted the ageing process and willed myself into staying thirty-nine in much the same way as that kid in ‘The Tin Drum’ refused to grow any bigger. Such a sudden and unexpected physical collapse as I’m currently experiencing is quite hard to take. I could get quite depressed about it. If I did, at least I’m in the right place for therapy. The only Americans who don’t have a therapist are probably those who need one. The sane think they’re insane and the insane (President Bush, springs to mind) think they’re sane.

I used to think poor health was for wimps. I believed in letting my body sort out its own problems and not bothering the medical profession. Mind you, if you had seen what the National Health Service had to offer in our corner of South West London, I think you too might have been inclined to self administer open-heart surgery at home rather than put yourself in the hands of dear Dr Begg.

Maybe it’s coming to America that’s done it. I’m a bit old world. A rusting Morris Minor in a car pound full of immaculately shiny SUVs. Whenever Ros and I go out for dinner we speak as if we’ve lost our dentures, so much do we fear revealing yellowed enamel to our brilliantly sparkling sabre-toothed hosts. It’s not easy wrapping your lips around your teeth for an entire evening without appearing substantially retarded.

Physical perfection is the name of the game over here.

Maybe not in the rest of America where the general populous is ballooning on the Kraft products that Ros promotes, but certainly in moneyed Darien, a place that brings to mind that charming and brilliant Stranglers lyric – “it’s only the children of the fucking wealthy that can afford to be good looking.”

The reconstruction of my body is, thankfully, covered by insurance. The first diagnosis here (while being wheeled into intensive care) concerns not your physical condition but your insurance details. If you have the wrong insurance provider, well, that gangrene is left to set.

It’s dentists I fear the most. One of those great imponderables, along with black holes and where the universe ends (and what’s on the other side?) that, try as might, I can’t understand, is why anyone in their right mind would chose to become a dentist. And what about dental assistants? Pretty girls, who could do anything they want, choosing to spend their waking hours passing instruments of torture to psychopaths. It makes no sense to me.

I was traumatised in my youth by having a dentist who resembled the Nazi torturer that pulled out all of Dustin Hoffman’s teeth in the Marathon Man. Without anaesthetic. If I remember correctly my dentist also never anaesthetised me. He was a bit like one of those condoms that promise heightened sensitivity.

My new American dentist is an improvement. He looks like Billy Crystal. Much better a comedian excavating my molars than a psychotic torturer. I must confess, though, that spotting him driving a cheap unprepossessing car did unnerve me somewhat. Can he be any good? I want my dentist to reek of success and have all the latest and best equipment. I want him to be happy, healthy, of an untroubled mind and not to have got out the wrong side of bed that morning. I didn’t want him to see that I’ve got a bigger and more expensive car and so for my second appointment I went out and hired the cheapest Ford on the road. I made sure that I arrived at the same time and let him see that he had no cause to feel any envy or latent aggression against me. I would have passively lain down on the concrete floor outside his surgery and let him scratch my tummy if I thought it might make him more compassionate towards me, but such a gesture could be misinterpreted.

It was while lying prostrate on his couch with tubes coming out of my wrenched-open mouth and saliva dribbling down my check, that I caught the eye of his pretty assistant looking down at me, as she leaned with what looked like a Kalashnikov in hand, and I found myself wishing that I’d plucked my nasal hairs that morning.

But I was so happy when it was all over and Dr Crystal told me that I didn’t have to return for another six months. (He’ll be lucky, six years more like). It was all I could do to stop myself from hugging him with joy. I positively bounded out of his surgery and on to my next appointment, this one with the hernia doctor.

The next day, while recovering from the news I might possibly have two hernias and having had a very graphic dream inspired by the gauze I was shown that is soon to become part of me, I had to subject myself to a twenty-four hour programme of laxatives to prepare myself for that unspeakable experience I referred to earlier. It was a programme that was to bring back memories of my time in India.

Americans specialise their medicine more than we do. This has given me another great imponderable. Why would someone of intelligence (and, while I’m not so sure about dentists, I do believe that doctors are, on the whole, intelligent); why would someone of intelligence, with a whole great canvas of medical options in front of him, choose to become a bowel doctor? What might it be about this particular part of the body that could possibly take his fancy? This then leads one to question how sensible it is to willingly let someone who could make such choice knock you out with general anaesthetic and administer a colonoscopy.

I arrived home rather gingerly, to receive a phone call from one of my five doctors who, touchingly, wanted to know how I was (I didn’t go into fine detail) and to mention that he’s a little concerned about my high blood sugar level. Apparently I’m just short of being classified a fully-fledged diabetic. It’s less the daily insulin injections that bother me, than the grief I anticipate over my alcohol consumption. I can hear Griff Rhys Jones, in those Holsten Pils ads, claiming the sugar turns into alcohol, and I just know what these children of the prohibition are going to say to me.

It’s enough even to make a grown man begin to miss dear Dr Begg.

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