Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A day with the doctor

This Monday, I had my first shadowing experience with a family physician. It was a lively afternoon clinic in the suburbs of Toronto.

As the clinic wound down, the waiting room emptied little by little and eventually the nurses took their leave as well. I hung around to see the last patient with my preceptor and then to reflect on our session and chat a little bit about future visits.

I had left my belongings in an office upstairs right beside a two- or three-foot tall felt doll in a hockey jersey (like a Muppet or the Angel puppet from Smile Time). When I had arrived in the early afternoon, the room had been filled with natural light, and I had noted the creepy puppet man. When I returned to retrieve a clipboard from my backpack in the late afternoon, the sun had almost completely set, leaving the room with only a glimmer of light. The light switches themselves were not in working order (presumably due to a popped lightbulb), so I ended up sifting through my bag staring face-to-face at this sinister-looking puppet in the dark.

"You're not the first one to be alarmed by him," my preceptor commented with dry amusement.

I have to admit, puppets creep me out. I probably watched too many episodes of Goosebumps and saw too many posters for Chucky as a child. When I was little, I used to set my action figures up for display on my bookshelves - but I always made sure to balance the good and evil ones in case they came to life at night (à la Indian in the Cupboard or Toy Story) so that the good ones would stop the evil ones from offing me in my sleep. When I returned upstairs to pick up my bag to leave in the early evening, even the glimmer of light filtering through the blinds was gone and the room had become pitch black. I fumbled around in the dark for my bag and jacket, fixing my eyes on where I knew the puppet was hiding just in front of me (though I couldn't see him). I indulged my imagination for a moment and allowed myself to picture the puppet having snuck into my backpack in the dark only to pop out and cut me when I opened it back at home...

I made my way back downstairs, bag and jacket in tow. "Found everything?" my preceptor called out from the back. "Yup, I got it. Thanks again," I replied, already on my way to the door.

By the time I stepped out the door, the clinic had more or less gone to sleep. The reception area had only one or two lights left on, casting a dim yellow glow on the area. All the staff and patients had cleared out and the small parking lot was pitch black. From the outside of the building, I could see the lights on in a couple of the examining rooms where my preceptor was finishing up his paperwork for the day.

Parked on the driveway leading up to the parking lot was a silver sport utility vehicle, presumably my preceptor's. I turned the corner towards the back of the building where my own car was parked. Parked beside it in the dark was an unmarked minivan with the trunk open. Surrounding it, four or five black people, probably in their twenties or thirties were loitering about. As I walked by, my throat tightened a little. I could feel a pair of eyes tracking me, but I got into my car without issue, and I drove away. As I passed by my preceptor's silvery SUV, I noted three of the strangers had made their way from the parking lot and were climbing the stairs to the darkened clinic. Foot to gas, and bye bye.

About five minutes out, I was still thinking about the situation that I had left behind. I realized I was stereotyping, but the scene had looked somewhat concerning. The clinic was closed, and all the staff had gone home. The only one left in the building was my preceptor (who held a special pain clinic on the side and so probably had a wealth of painkillers in his office). It was dark, deserted and a whole cadre of strange people had just walked into the clinic.

I wanted to go home and not stick my nose into this situation. I mentally crunched the possibilities both likely and absurd. Perhaps these people were friends of my preceptor and had arranged to meet up with him for some after hours advice. Then again, maybe they were troublemakers or addicts going in to gank my fam doc while the clinic was empty. Indulging my ferocious imagination even further - maybe my preceptor was doing a little drug dealing on the side with non-prescription use of opioid analgesics!

As I considered the possibilities, I felt distinctly uneasy. I wanted to drive home, but what if something nasty was afoot? How would I feel if I found out my preceptor's office had been broken into and he had been left bleeding on the floor of his clinic knowing that I had walked by the assailants on my way out? I recognized that this was an unlikely possibility. Obviously, my preceptor had being working for a long time and the likelihood of something sketchy going down the one day that I was with him was slim. But could I chance it in good conscience?

I turned the car around and headed back to the clinic for another drive-by. It wasn't very instructive though since both cars were still in the parking lot and the lights were still on in the clinic. There was a daycare next door and houses lining the street, but the whole area was quite dark and carried a secluded feel. If something unsavory was afoot within the clinic building itself, it's quite possible that nobody would even notice.

Still, what could I do? Having completed an inconclusive drive-by, I turned the car homeward bound once more and drove back the way I had come for another five minutes.

But had I satisfied my tingling concerns? I needed another brain on this. Who should I call? Parentals? They'd probably be worried about my safety first and tell me to come home. Friends? I decided to log a long distance call to Sandlot, my trusted and loving girlfriend and a woman with a determined social conscience, forsaking the minutes on my Pay as You Go plan. No one picked up.

I deferred to my second line - should I call Mello or J-Rock? I decided that J-Rock was more likely to provide the gutsy answers I might need in this situation. He agreed that the scenario - dark, isolated clinic with a lone doctor being descended upon by four or five young, stout strangers - was due some concern. He recommended I try calling the clinic, and I worked up an excuse with regard to scheduling one of my future visits. Of course, the clinic telephone went straight to answering machine since the office was closed. I didn't have my preceptor's mobile.

No further ahead, we plotted what would be a satisfactory course of action. After all, it was unlikely that anything bad was going down, but at the same time I couldn't think of any legitimate sounding reason for the strangers' presence. It wasn't that any bad case scenario was likely, but rather would I be able to absolve myself on the off chance that it was actually the case?

J-Rock laid down three courses of action: Go back and check what's happening. Call the police. Go home, and pray that nothing bad happened.

With the first choice, I was concerned on a number of levels. If something bad was happening, I could get caught up in it. If nothing bad was happening, my preceptor would think I was stupid, not to mention quick to judge for pegging the strangers as something malevolent. To be honest, both scenarios were equally unpleasant - though J-Rock thought that if I was straight up, my concern would not be considered against me by my preceptor.

The second choice would be even worse if nothing bad was going down. In fact, if these were people my preceptor had expected, he'd probably be extremely perplexed and unhappy with the commotion. The strangers would be irked as well, and it wouldn't be hard to reason out who called in the coppers.

The third choice was my gut instinct: feign ignorance and hope for the best. However, I wasn't sure that would satisfy my conscience.

In the end, I drove back and parked on the street. Unexpectedly, the SUV that I thought belonged to my preceptor was gone, but the van that belonged to the strangers was still present. The lights in the clinic were still on. Had I mistaken whose car was whose? But the strangers had obviously had access to the van. Still, if my preceptor's car was gone, it was unlikely that anything bad had befallen him. I didn't think it was likely that robbers would steal the car if they already had their own... especially if it was painkillers or medical goods that they wanted. Wouldn't a quick in and out smash and grab operation be the likely course?

After some wrestling with myself, I decided to go down and take a look, with J-Rock still connected on the other side of my mobile. If my supervisor thought I was silly, that was an acceptable price for knowing that all was well. If things panned out for the worst, at least J-Rock could call me an ambulance before I bled out and died.

As it turned out, I caught a glimpse of one of the strangers walking on the inside of the building, and another one showed up behind the curtain of the window. I stood outside and peered in. The stranger appeared to be doing something inside one of the exam rooms and they seemed to know their way around. The strangers were obviously still there, so the van was definitely theirs. Therefore, my preceptor was probably gone. My index of suspicion went down as I reassessed the threat level. The strangers? Probably cleaning staff. My supervisor? Probably gone home.

Reasonably confident that all was well, I walked back to my car and went home as well. Neither the strangers nor my preceptor had seen me, and my conscience was set easy. In the end, the crisis had been only hypothetical.

Sure enough, my preceptor e-mailed me later that night undamaged. Good thing I didn't try calling the cops!

Of course, when I told Sandlot the story later, she just laughed: "Ah, you never call me from your cell phone. I thought you were in a life or death situation or something!" True enough, looking back at my half-hour moral dilemma over the clinic cleaning staff seems a bit silly, but it sure felt dramatic at the time!


Han Na said...

Whoa that so crazy!!
I am so glad that you actually went back to see what was happening!!
As I was reading your blog, I was like... go back go back go back andrew!! hahaha
good job.
koodos in looking out for your preceptor's life.

P.S. your comment about how you made sure there were even good and bad action figures is sooo cute!!

Jerry said...

Dude we make a good team :D Another crisis averted :D

Though next time I'd prefer to be Jack and you be Chloe (24 fans will understand that, and when you start watching 24 YOU will understand that lol)

a_ndy said...

Hey, if you want to be the one in harm's way, I'm more than happy to offer logistical support. But I'm not too keen on being Chloe - she has kind of an annoying face. Maybe I can be Freddy Prinze's boyscout.

sandlot said...

haha. i'm so glad you did the right thing. I laughed in support.... =P
Maybe i should start not to leave my phone on silent mode... just in case you ever call bc of a life and death emerg.

@ Jerry... Andy IS WATCHING 24 NOW! Therefore, he understands (or should).