June 6, 2023 - 9:00 pm
My doctor is retiring.
I am heartbroken.
For 30 years, he’s been the first line of defense. A strange pain here? Give him a call. A stomach issue there? Give him a call. Time for a physical? Give him a call. Need a vaccine? Give him a call.
For 30 years, whenever something ailed me, I would drive to his office, step on the scale, have my blood pressure taken, then sit in the tidy exam room until the door opened and he entered with a smile — and my file.
Over the years, I’ve watched that file thicken, from a few thin papers to the size of a toaster box. He needs two hands to carry it now. Thirty years? That file is my life. My sneezes, my wheezes. My insides and outsides.
Is that allowed?
The doctor won’t see me now?
I should explain why this so depresses me. My doctor’s name is Scott Lewis. “Dr. Lewis” for our first decade together. “Doc” for the second. “Scott” for the third.
Scott is an “internist.” In the old days, that just meant doctor. Not a surgeon. Not an impossible-to-get-into specialist. A doctor. The kind you see at the first sign of anything.
I honestly can’t remember how I started as his patient. Someone suggested him? Someone called him? Doesn’t matter. I liked him. And I trusted him. He has a relaxed manner, a compassionate way of speaking, he’s smart, he thinks things through and he never rushes you.
Do you have a doctor like that? If so, you know they are as precious as a good spouse. The whole doctor-patient thing is like a marriage anyhow. A one-way marriage. They get to see you naked, not the other way around.
Over the years, Dr. Lewis and I have been through a lot. Countless checkups, blood tests, X-rays. We’ve had a few scares. When things got potentially serious, he made calls and handed me off to other specialists, the GI doctor, the cardiologist, the urologist.
But when they were done with their work, I always wound up back in Scott’s office. He got all the reports. He got all the scans. He knew, like that old British wartime song says, we would meet again.
Now he’s retiring. I feel lost. Insurance can’t cover this broken heart.
Scott broke the news to me a few months ago, during a checkup.
“I wanted you to know early,” he said. “I’m leaving at the end of June. It’s time.”
I nodded. I smiled. I may have even mumbled, “Congratulations.” But inside, I was screaming: “What the $#!!?”
“I know, I’m sorry,” he said. “I can recommend someone if you like.”
I smiled again. But my stomach was sinking like the Edmund Fitzgerald. Recommend someone? How would they know my history? How would they know the words never to say in front of me, like, “It could be cancer.”
How would they know that this part of my anatomy always hurts, or that part always gets injured? How would they know when to lean back with a soothing tone and say, “Relax, it’s probably just a headache. Remember last time?”
Retiring? My doctor can’t retire. I’m too old to be breaking in new people!
And yet, apparently, I am not alone. Doctors are leaving in record numbers. Pressure. Burnout. Age. The whole COVID-19 thing.
Scott, my doctor, is 66. According to reports, 40 percent of American doctors will turn 65 or older in the next decade. And by 2033, we could have a shortage of nearly 140,000 physicians. If every one of them sees 100 patients, that would mean 14 million people could soon be feeling like me right now.
That will be a real medical crisis.
Retiring? No way. Marcus Welby never retired. And he looked old when that show started!
But I have to face the music. Last week, I went for my final physical at Dr. Lewis’ office. One last check of the ears, the throat, the glands, the lungs, the heartbeat and the you-know-whats.
It was melancholy. I think I heard the stethoscope sighing.
At the end, Scott gave me a hug. He even thanked me. I don’t know why. I’m the one who should be thanking him, for every time he squeezed me in, every time he texted to see how I was doing, every time he phoned in a last-minute prescription, every time he called with the lab results and said, “Good numbers! Keep up the healthy living.”
I remember my mother once saying, “A parent should never outlive a child.” In a perfect world, a patient would never outlast a doctor.
But it’s happening. My doctor is retiring. And I’m just sick about it.
Who do I see about that?
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.