It’s been a while since I last stepped into a doctor’s office. A firm believer in the healing powers of time, I generally opt to wait out every ailment. After a few hours, days, or weeks, eventually whatever pain or illness that afflicted me begins to subside. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I sneer to the potential sprained ankle or allergic reaction, and continue my life on the remedial edge.

Last Sunday I came home from a sea-kayaking weekend with a plugged ear—something I’ve had numerous times before, something that’s always alleviated itself in the past. But this one felt different, and I had a feeling it was there to stay. Three days went by, during which I heard nothing but a high-pitched ring, slowly driving me mad. On the fourth day, I lost this game of chicken and started Googling doctors.

Ten years have passed since my last visit—for a broken pelvis, in fact—and much longer since the days of routine check-ups. I suddenly realized how annoyingly inconvenient life’s little setbacks can be… Things I take for granted because I never have to do them, like visiting the doctor or having a car break down during the workday. I have to use a whole hour of my precious vacation time at a doctor’s office? What an outrage!

Based strictly on convenience, I drove to the nearest doctor’s office I could find on my lunch break. It was a modest little med center tucked into a strip mall between a Thai restaurant and a hair salon. The facade was unassuming, the sign overdue for a good power-washing. The kind of place you might go to patch up a no-questions-asked stab wound; I half expected to be greeted by Saul Goodman’s receptionist on the inside.

I was hoping to be in and out within the hour. Who knows, maybe they let all the people with trite problems skip the line and get right in. Maybe the doctors inside don’t really mind pro-bono work during their lunch breaks. Maybe for simple things, ya know, like when a vet pulls a thorn out of a cat’s paw right on the spot, they waive the fee and save you the trouble of paperwork. You never know, right? I guess I figured I’d…play it by ear?  

I struck out on that first visit. When I told the receptionist of my trite problem, showed her my insurance card, and suggested how quickly this might be remedied, she immediately frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry. The doctor who accepts this insurance isn’t in today. You’ll have to come in tomorrow; does 3:45 work?”

My body language must have exposed that I was about to walk away and just drive to some other strip mall doctor, because she quickly offered an alternative. “But we can do it today with another doctor! You’ll have to pay a higher copay, of course.”

I considered this. Because I have absolutely no frame of reference for how expensive health issues can be, I responded dryly, “Are we talking…price of a candy bar more expensive, or like second-mortgage more expensive?”

“That I don’t know.” I wasn’t sure if she was acknowledging the joke or not, but the hanging question mark made me hesitate pulling the trigger. Ah heck, what’s one more day. “I guess I’ll just come back tomorrow.” I took the 3:45 appointment.

Because I’m selectively stingy—time absolutely is money—I held off taking my lunch break until 3:30, and went back to the doctor. I waited a few minutes, a woman called me in, and we began.

She had a tired, skeptical air about her as she whizzed through my paperwork.

She never bothered with any introduction, rarely looked up from her computer, and took my word for my height, weight, and health history. Clearly the goal here was churning out patients as quickly as possible—I respected the hell outta that.  She did ask a few clarifying questions, and seemed nonplussed by my answers.

“Taryn Borst, is that…?”

“My wife. She kept her last name.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Any particular reason?”

I shrugged. “We’re progressive, I suppose.”

She rattled through the checkboxes, asking if I vaped, chewed tobacco, had my tonsils removed, or had a history of high blood pressure, and then she segued right into another question: “So why are you ‘crawlin’?”

Because there was no transition, I thought she was still asking about ailments. I almost responded, “No, no—I have an ear ache,” but instead went with the ever-safe, and in this case comical, “WHAT?

She pointed to my T-shirt, which read “WE ARE CRAWLIN,” a memento from a senior year bar crawl event in college. I stammered to explain. “See, they had this phrase they put on everything: ‘We are Calvin.’ So for the event, it was kinda like this…little play on…words…” As my voice trailed off I felt like Stanley Yelnats explaining his name to Mr. Sir. It just sounded dumb.

After a brief, regarding glare, she continued. “Alright, when you get in there he’s gonna try and flush your ear out, but if it doesn’t work you’ll have to go the pharmacy for some ear drops. Now, it’s very important that you try to squirt the drops on the periphery of the canal instead of the center; otherwise that crusty wax tends to rip out the skin when you come back in to try again. At least, I think that’s how he does it. I don’t really know.”

“Wait, you’re not the doctor?”

“Nope. Now if you’ll wait here I’ve got a few more patients to take care of.” She left abruptly, leaving me alone with my scary thoughts of catastrophically misplaced eardrops. How big could an ear canal possibly be?

About five minutes went by, and then a jovial, Jack Nicholson-looking fellow breezed through the doorway. Because he also never introduced himself, I will just keep referring to him as ‘the doctor.’

“So, what have we been up to lately?” He clapped his hands together and looked at me expectantly. Now I know that doctors and dentists are bullshitting when they act like you’ve spoken just last week. I played along though, searching through the abyss for the classic “what’s new” topics. I chose work.

I gave him a one-sentence summary of my job, which delighted him.  “And do you have a degree for that?”

I laughed and told him what I tell everyone: “I have a degree, but not for that.”

He nodded deeply. “Ah, a man after my own heart. I actually have a degree in zoology. Can you believe that?”

“No.” No, I can’t believe this. I’m putting my health in the hands of a zoologist. He is just like Saul Goodman! I started scanning the walls for the telltale ‘University of American Samoa’ diploma.

“Yeah, I’ve always enjoyed studying animals. But hey, life changes and sometimes you end up in a different place than you expected! Every once in a while though, I do wonder what I could’ve done, where I might’ve gone, had I gone to med school.” He gazed off into space for a second, and then went back to business. He shined a light in both my ears, frowning when he came across the plugged one. “Oh my. Yep, that’s pretty hard stuff down there. He clinked the lens on the wax surface a couple times for effect, like a proud scientist would a sturdy mixing tank.

I should’ve just rolled the dice and paid the higher copay yesterday…

“Ok, so here’s what I’m going to do. I’m gonna try and flush it out—I’m not sure it’ll work, because it’s pretty crusty down there, but we’ll give it a go. If it doesn’t work, you’ll have to go to the pharmacy for some drops that’ll loosen the wax, and then we’ll try again in three days. Sound good?”

I can be skeptical at times, but I’m rarely one to fret. As he talked, my skepticism faded and I decided I was fine with this. The procedure sounded like an incredibly common, easy one—anybody could do it. Even a zoologist.

The doctor had me hold up a dog bowl to the side of my head, and he used a little injector to force water into my ear. I didn’t really feel a thing at first, but after a couple squirts, I began to feel the mud inside start to slough off. He used about six syringes of water in total, and took another peek after the last one. His stern, scientific expression turned to elation in an instant.

“By god, son, we got it! We really got it!”

“That’s great!” It felt great, too. The internal ringing had ceased, and I could hear the outside world again.

“You do have a slight ear infection though, so I’m going to prescribe to you some antibiotics. Are you allergic to any medicine? Ever had amoxicillin?”

“I’ve never had it before, but I’m pretty sure it’s in an Eminem lyric.”

Doc assured me it wasn’t a painkiller with mind-altering side effects, shook my hand, and sent me on my way. All in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, and a pretty efficient one at that. Maybe when I have bigger problems I’ll consider switching my primary care physician to someone with a background in medicine, but for a simple ear-flush once every ten years, a strip mall zoologist will suffice.

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