Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hope is a Four-Letter Word

In a world where students literally die in crowded classrooms, it is not unusual or unforgivable to hear someone on a grieving campus utter a four-letter word. Some golfers mumble obscenities when they miss a short putt. Passionate hoopsters yell R-rated profanity when they are fouled. Sometimes they consist of four letters, sometimes more letters.
It seems to be human nature, rather American human nature, to react to external stressors with expletives. Though, I try to avoid the practice of using profanity for a linguistic crutch, there are times when I’m in public that the duct tape on my tongue does not censor my mind.

For example, last week I had a horrible encounter with a new patient in the state of the art facility where I practice dentistry with three other doctors. In twenty years of practicing, this incident ranks among the top three most unforgettable occasions. I won’t share the other two because they’d make you cancel your next checkup. Let’s just say my job is mentally, academically, and physically challenging everyday. Generally, I keep a tight rein on my emotions because I have to. My compassion cannot overrule the standard of care dictated by law. I am there to prevent and treat disease. It’s not a pretty job but somebody has to do it. You can make jokes and disparage dentist all you want, but I dare you to have a toothache or get your front teeth knocked out by a steering wheel a week before your wedding. Okay?

My second patient of that morning was a middle aged white man with multiple missing and infected teeth. He’d been in pain for years, ducking and dodging the dental office with Orajel and Advil. At that point, the home remedies were no longer effective and he decided he wanted full dentures. From my office, I reviewed his digital radiographs and it was clear, he needed antibiotics before any definitive treatment. My goal when I went into the operatory was to relieve his pain and devise a treatment plan.

Unlike Michael Jackson, I’ve been a black woman all my life. There are some things I know intuitively. One look at the expression of horror upon that patient’s face when I was introduced, told me he racist and sexist. There is a peculiar way the eyes narrow and the cheeks pucker when someone doesn’t approve of your gender. I know that look as does every female firefighter and police officer. And when a person believes segregation yesterday, segregation today, and segregation forever, it shows. However, the ugliest and most intimidating glare of all comes from someone who hates everything about you and your ancestors. If you don’t know the look, I pray you never see it. It is evil.

The patient wouldn’t shake my hand, look at me, or allow me to examine him. Twenty years of experience, licenses in two states, awards and honors, hundreds of hours of continuing education, thousands of patients, bestselling books, faith in God—none of my credentials meant anything to him. He insisted on seeing another doctor. For the record, patients in pain will see Mickey Mouse if he can help them.

At that point, the feeling between patient X and me was mutual. I courteously left the room. I quietly left the building. I was speechless. In 2008, someone younger than me—of any race—still displays such blatant discrimination. I sat in my car, looked at the ashy heavens, and whispered a four-letter word. I said, “Hope.” A word many have relegated into the category of f##k and s##t. Thankfully, the American Heritage Dictionary list one definition of an expletive that is more profound than profane. “A word or phrase that does not contribute any meaning but is added only to fill out a sentence.”

In my country, the USA, it feels like hope truly does not contribute any meaning to millions of cynics, skeptics, and narrow minded people who have forgotten how to dream. I pray my colleagues in healthcare never fall into that category, nor my neighbors, or my children. We need researchers who won’t give up when a new drug doesn’t work. We need citizens who believe a 70-year old veteran, a former first lady, or a black man with an unusual name can lead this country. And we need children who never inhale the lingering smoke of that peculiar institution known as slavery.

As for me, after a moment of meditation, I got out of my car and went back to work believing my day would improve and my tomorrows will be even better. Na├»ve? I don’t think so.

In the words of someone who inspires me, “Hope is never false.”
Copyright 2008. Monica Frazier Anderson