I’ve always thought it would be nice to be a little ill. Not so ill as to die or lose my job or lose my sanity, just ill enough to take some time off and be the person that people stop to talk about respectfully for a length of time before moving on to more cheerful things, and applaud when she returns bravely to work before she really should, woolly-headed and hobbling a little, but determined to do her bit like everyone else. Nothing nasty and contagious or humdrum like the flu—everyone knows it’s silly to catch the flu—but rather some unique, offbeat malady that gets even doctors pumped because they’ve never seen anything like it before.

But I’ve always been awfully healthy. I’m the patient who gets squeezed into ten minutes at the doctor’s and gets cut off when she starts talking how there’s this hard little bump in her nose that’s definitely growing, and might it be hyperthyroidism because her hair’s shedding like crazy and her great-grand-aunt once had hyperthyroidism.

So I was pretty excited when my eye started watering some months ago. Just one eye, the right one, just dribbling away diffidently throughout the day. I know it doesn’t sound like much put that way, but who’s to say it’s not serious? The body is a complex machine and everything is connected to everything else. I once read somewhere that there’s a path to your brain from behind your eye, which may or may not be true, and I may or may not have read it, but no one can deny eyes are important.

I don’t have epilepsy so reluctantly circled “No,” and dabbed my eye and looked around to see if anyone had noticed me dabbing my eye.

I felt shy to call the doctor though.

“And what is the problem?” I imagined the receptionist ask gruffly, “A watery eye? I’m sorry, we’ve been told not to make appointments for watery eyes. Our doctors don’t have time for them.” So I waited for my annual physical, for which my doctor couldn’t refuse to see me, and found myself sitting in the waiting room one afternoon with the questionnaire they like you to fill out.

My name and my medications (“none”) were already filled in so I went straight to the section about diseases I have now or have ever had. I dabbed my eye with a tissue, and circled “No” to anemia, asthma, cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, emphysema, and goiter. “No” also to high blood pressure, heart murmur, insomnia, psoriasis, colitis, hepatitis, and rheumatic fever. I paused at “epilepsy (seizures)” as the word “seizure” may encompass nervous breakdowns but figured that epilepsy was the operative word. I don’t have epilepsy so reluctantly circled “No,” and dabbed my eye and looked around to see if anyone had noticed me dabbing my eye.

There were five or six patients in the room, all of them old. They were filling out their forms, their pens trembling a little, or watching TV, their heads wobbling a little, pain and suffering writ large on their faces. No one paid me the slightest attention. It’s the same story at work and I don’t mind saying I’m sore about it. For weeks I’ve been dabbing my eye in meetings and saying, “Pardon my watery eye,” but all I get are impatient looks and, “You’ve got dry eye. Try eye drops,” which misses the point entirely that only one of my eyes waters while the other is exactly as moist as it should be.

I circled “No” to whether my heart has ever skipped beats, whether I have increasing constipation, persistent diarrhea, black stools, ringing in my ears, or color changes in my hands or feet. As to whether I cough or wheeze during exercise I wrote, “not applicable.”

As you can imagine I was feeling vulgarly healthy and quite crushed by now. It should be that if you’re ill, you’re ill, but some ill people are clearly considered more ill than others. And old people are the snobs of the world of the ill. Old people think they do illness best. They’re blasé, anything you’re excited about having, they’ve already had it.

I went back to the form and unhappily circled “No” to whether I was born without a kidney, spleen, testicle or other organ, or whether I have hernia, mononucleosis, rashes, pressure sores, herpes, concussion, muscle cramps, or sickle cell trait or disease. With relief I paused at, “Have you ever had any problems with vision?” and wrote, “Maybe.”

Now I’m a perfectly reasonable human being and I don’t expect the form to ask, “Are you suffering or have you ever suffered from a watery eye?” But would it hurt to add a little question to make an insecure patient more comfortable? Such as, “If you have a problem, however small, with your eyes or an eye or any other part of your body, please say so here. Do not, repeat, do not be embarrassed to answer ‘Yes!'”

Embarrassed or not, I intend to raise the matter with my doctor. Though I’m upset with her because of what she wrote in her visit notes last year: “Patient worried about hair loss with no basis whatsoever.” But I won’t let this stop me. There’s still a chance she’ll say, “You have a watery eye? Just one eye that waters? My God, why didn’t you call me right away?”


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