In kindergarten, I accessorized my “Save The Planet” t-shirt collection and kelly green stirrup leggings with a Fisher Price doctor’s bag. I was going to be a doctor, probably a heart surgeon.  My delighted parents added kindling to the dream by providing me with doctor stuff to play with – a subscription to the Time-Life Science Library, a chem set, and best of all, in fourth grade, a projection microscope.

I had the perfect opportunity to show off my new toy: a science presentation on the circulatory system. I was going to show my class actual human blood cells. The process was simple: draw blood, make slide, put in microscope, focus, and project image on a flat, white surface. The cells didn’t keep their shape (like webbed inner tubes) for long, so the blood had to be fresh. But when I was told that zero tolerance meant I couldn’t prick my own finger in school with a pin, not even for science, I somehow convinced my mother to come into school and donate some blood for my presentation. She arrived at the nurse’s office, where I was waiting with a prepared slide. Just add blood. I guess she wanted to make sure I had enough blood to show, because instead of a needle, she brought the largest kitchen knife we had, and (under the somber supervision of the school nurse), sliced open her index finger. I eagerly collected a couple of drops of blood from her gaping wound and ran upstairs to my classroom without so much as a “thank you.”

Soon after, perhaps worried that my thirst for science would lead to more substantial “donations” in the future, my parents hooked me up with some serious fake doctor cred: Emergency Room, the DOS-based video game. On the inside flap of the CD case, a doctor, holding a model of a femur, encourages, “No bones about it – anyone can be successful as an emergency room doctor.”

Emergency Room is exactly what it sounds like: you, the doctor, treat and triage everything from a “Nose problem – foreign body (Toddler Male Black)” to “Poisoning (High School Female Asian)” to “Stroke (Paramedic)”. You pick patients from the waiting room and move them through to discharge – hopefully, without killing them.

The patients are broken down, Purusha-like, into Subjective and Objective assessment results, computer-generated “photographs” of a lacerated hand or a gunshot wound, no names, no family, just one score telling you how well you’re doing as a doctor, and a color-coded bar indicating how well the patient is expected to fare if you discharge at any point. It instills in you a surgeon-like separation from the patient in front of you.

That holy separation of a virtual doctor at work came in handy when, in the throes of my obsession with this game (think World of Warcraft obsessed) at around age 13, I cut open my leg with the edge of a fresh razor blade.

Two months of experience with shaving my legs gave me the confidence to look elsewhere as I worked the razor – the cheap, disposable kind – up my left thigh. In the shower, with the water on, I was examining the Rorschach blot of mildew on the shower curtain when I felt a wet sensation of a different temperature and higher viscosity start to trickle down my leg. My leg was red, red, red, with blood, a 2-inch cut the culprit. No rhythmic spurting, so I assumed veins, not arteries. My disposable razor had fallen apart, and the corner of the blade had painlessly sliced open my thigh.

I decided two things, immediately: First, that I needed to stop the bleeding, and second, that no one could ever know this had happened. The first is rational, and the second (as far as I can tell) is the product of a highly skilled teenage contrarian:

“Tell your parents so they can take you to the hospital,” the entire collected wisdom of human civilization said to me.

“No! I can fix it myself,” I huffed, as the family shower started to look positively Hitchcockian.

In fact, I did not at any time think it would be a good idea to go to the emergency room, the real one. For one thing, the wound wasn’t that bad, I surmised. They’d take forever to treat me. There’d be an “Ice Pick Wound (Adult Male Asian)” or worse, “Arrow Impaled in Head (Paramedic),” maybe even an “Unconscious” ahead of me. I was “Laceration, Thigh (School Age Female White).” No big whoop. I needed stitches. Whatever.

Stitches, right. How am I going to to that? I decided a needle and thread was too risky. Besides, I’d have to leave the bathroom to get it, and didn’t want to explain to my parents why I was half naked, covered in blood from the waist down, and rummaging around in mom’s sewing kit.

After wrapping a towel around my leg and shuffling to the medicine cabinet, I had what I needed: medical tape, rubbing alcohol, a glass of water, Neosporin, and gauze. Lots of gauze. I laid down on the bathmat in the bathroom, elevating my leg and placing the towel underneath my work area. I poured some of the glass of water onto the wound, followed by half the bottle of alcohol (that detail will reveal my very limited knowledge of medical practice at the time to any actual doctors or trained professionals). When I had the will to live again, I had a much clearer picture of what I’d done. Then, a knock on the door: “What are you doing in there?” mom said, “Just a minute. Shaving,” I replied. Was that fatty tissue I could see sticking out of my leg? That’s not good.

As the blood flow slowed, I ripped three-inch strips of medical tape and placed them like fake nails on the ends of the fingers of my right hand. I’d need 3-4, I guessed. I filled the wound with Neosporin, which sat in my leg crevice, resembling the world’s least appetizing hot dog and bun, and started to close the wound the best I could. With my left hand, I pinched the edge of the wound and placed one piece of medical tape tightly across it. I moved up the wound like this 3 times, pinching and taping, until the cut was a slightly narrower mess of blood and Neosporin. I reinforced my work with more tape. Great job, doc. I wrapped the area in gauze, securely attached to my thigh with yet more medical tape, wrapped the bloody towel and the rest of the evidence in a not so bloody towel, wrapped myself in a bathrobe, and began a month of finding late-summer appropriate outfits that artfully covered the gauzy mess.

That cut got all the care and attention of a new puppy: I cleaned it, re-dressed it, checked for infection, carefully hidden from all eyes but mine. I was found out a month later when I brought the wrong (too short) bike shorts to wear under my Umbros for a soccer game. But by then, it was too late to treat it beyond what I was doing already. Success! Despite the questionable competence of my medical adventure, I escaped with no infections, just a scar that has since lightened from red to pink to almost porcelain.

At this point, I still wanted to be a doctor: I’d moved on from heart surgeon, passing though a forensic pathologist phase (inspired by my hero, Agent Scully) until I settled on neurosurgery. I seriously thought this would be my life, mediocre algebra grades be damned, until the day I set foot in an actual emergency room.

Thanks to my successful medical intervention on that cut, I’d never had a reason to be in a real emergency room, with real doctors, beyond the age of one. So the first time I ever consciously entered one was when I volunteered in a hospital one high school summer. I learned one thing on day one, hour one: the emergency room wasn’t the quiet, orderly system of reference materials and patient charts I’d played with in Emergency Room. It was a cacophony. Frustrated patients waited hours for treatment, parents clutching injured children were told to fill out a clipboard full of forms before a doctor would see their child.

I did anything but play doctor: I ran blood samples to the lab. I talked to the patients. I fed an old man a dinner that he didn’t want to eat. This wasn’t a game, I learned. In the actual emergency room, I was doing everything my beloved virtual one left out. Instead of helping to cure “Spider Bite (Elderly Female White)”, I talked to “No Health Insurance” (Middle Aged Two Jobs Named Martha) or “Worried Mother” (Daughter, Coughing For Three Weeks) or “Sleep Deprivation” (Nurse, Sick of This Shit, Probably Shouldn’t Be Telling You This). It wore me down, and as the summer went on, I dragged my heels, dreading the patients, the nurses, the samples, in all their real glory as much as I did the trip to the basement copy room past the darkened hallway where, we volunteers speculated, the hospital hid its animal testing labs.

The doctors were not the protagonists of the real emergency room. They were along for the ride, as nurses and aides handled the capsules of poverty, pain, and mortality that comprised the one-hour dramas of that space. And I flitted between rooms with less and less purpose, witnessing it all, waiting for my break, and for the end of that summer. One August afternoon, as I told funny stories to a four-year old girl while a doctor sewed the index finger of her right hand back in place, I realized that I no longer saw myself in the doctor’s chair. I didn’t want to be the one giving the stitches – there was something else here that all the anatomy books in the world couldn’t explain. I was done playing.

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ABIGAIL OHLHEISER writes about believers, politics, and culture. She is a contributing writer at The Revealer, and has contributed to The New Humanist and Slate Magazine, where she's also a regular news blogger for the Slatest. Hobbies include sharing meals with strangers, forgetting to write thank you notes, and trying not to miss the point.

2 responses to “Playing Doctor”

  1. Alanna says:

    Funny how reality tends to smack you in the face and “tell you different,” isn’t it? After a brief stint as an EMT, it took me years to understand why I didn’t stick with it. It’s because I’m not that busybody type, the saver, the one who has to get involved. I’d rather distance myself – be a hermit in a forest with a typewriter. It was a difficult lesson for me.

    I relate to this, your revelation.

  2. […] piece at the Nervous Breakdown. In kindergarten, I accessorized my “Save The Planet” t-shirt collection and kelly green […]

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