There’s this doctor we see, he’s a gruff old bugger. Bedside manner is definitely not his strong suit. In fact, the first time I met him, he startled me from sleep as he breezed into our hospital room followed by a swarm of registrars and students.
“Did you know you snore?” he asked. “You should see someone about that.”
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and I’d been awake all night with nine-week old Rosalia who’d been admitted for IV antibiotics to treat a UTI. I was shattered, and I was taking the opportunity to catch a few zzzs while she slept. I didn’t think much of this rude doctor swanning in like he owned the place! He was brusque, he was unemotional, he examined the baby and then he was gone. After he left, I sat feeding her and feeling very grateful that he was just the on-call paediatrician. We’d be unlikely to see him again.
But a few weeks later, Mercedes’ general paediatrician decided that she needed to have a sleep study done. She’d arrange a referral. “You’re lucky,” she said. “There’s a paediatric sleep specialist attached to the hospital and he’s one of the best.”
Of course, you can guess what happened next. We fronted up for the appointment with the sleep specialist, and sure enough, it was him. No wonder he’d been so interested in my snoring!
As on our first encounter, he was brusque and unemotional, which makes things a little awkward for someone like me who likes to talk a lot! But he was thorough, I have to give him that much. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.
The next time we met, Mercedes had undergone the sleep study and we were regrouping to discuss the results. Except he didn’t have them. He’d been away in Europe for two weeks and hadn’t had time to follow-up with the hospital to get the report. I was cranky. Very cranky. He acknowledged that, and in the letter he dictated back to her general paediatrician he noted that “Mum is annoyed, and rightly so”. He eventually phoned with the results a week or so later and arranged a referral to a neurologist as follow up. It was unlikely we’d need to see him again.
Recently however, we did. This time, we needed to discuss Chiara’s snoring and the impact that it might be having on her concentration and behaviour. And where Mercedes is anxious and clingy when it comes to doctors, Chiara approached the doctor’s appointment in the same way she approaches everything in life – head on, a hundred miles an hour.
“I don’t snore,” she announced as we walked into his office. “And you’re not taking my tonsils out.”
“I didn’t say I was going to,” he replied. At this point, we’d been there less than 30 seconds.
“Yeah, well, you’re not,” she assured him as she looked him straight in the eye. “I DON’T snore.”
He looked her up and down, this hobbit-sized child with her indomitable confidence.
“So Chiara, do you think you know more than I do?”
“YES!” she replied, standing her ground and holding her gaze.
“Fair call,” he conceded. “You probably do.”
And there it was – for all the brusqueness I perceived in my own interactions with him, it turns out that when it comes to kids, his bedside manner is spot on. Chiara grinned at him in acknowledgement of having won their little exchange then sat happily down on the floor to play with the plastic farm animals he has in a corner of his office.
I learned something else about him that day too. We discussed that Chiara would potentially need an ENT review, and how we’d struggle to afford one privately but that the hospital waiting lists are exorbitant. I let on how much it had cost us to have Rosalia’s grommets done privately last year with the same surgeon that Mercedes sees publicly simply because we couldn’t wait the 18 months it would have taken just to get her seen at the hospital clinic. He shook his head.
“That’s just wrong,” he said. “He could have bulk billed you. It’s his call. Children should not miss out on treatment they need because of cost. I’m so disappointed.”
And in that moment, I realised that the reason we’d never been charged the $300 fee the sleep specialist generally charges for each consultation wasn’t because our referral had come from the hospital as I’d thought, but rather because he’d bulk-billed us at his own discretion. Knowing that our financial circumstances are tough as a result of Mercedes’ health issues, he’d made the choice to forego his own fee and only charge the standard Medicare amount. I felt tears prick my eyes. I wanted to tell him I was grateful for his generosity, but I sensed my tears were enough.
As we went to leave, he handed me a prescription for a nasal spray to help Chiara’s newly-diagnosed hayfever, then rummaged in a drawer and emerged with two bottles of it.
“Take these,” he said. “It’ll save you a trip to the pharmacy with all the kids.”
So you see, it turns out that I was wrong about that doctor. Yes, he’s gruff and brusque and maybe even a little grumpy. He doesn’t wax lyrical and he doesn’t make time for niceties. But none of that really matters.
Because beneath it all, when it really counts, he cares.