Tim takes the bus to work every day. On rare occasions, I drive him to the office, but usually it’s on my way someplace else. This morning, we had errands we had to do together, so once those were finished, we stopped at the coffee place across from his office for his usual.
It’s not “the” coffee place in town, not the hip or popular place, not the tourist place to get coffee, it’s just our coffee place.
We shuffled into the crowded, tight space. At the counter, I saw a familiar shape, mannerisms, a voice sounding like someone I used to know. I leaned around surreptitiously, verified that it was him. Right in front of me was Dr. Peter Smith, the brilliant orthopedic surgeon, a man who figured actively in my daughter’s life, who held her life literally in his hands nine times, who signed without question every school release form and PT permission I ever needed.
Well, except one. He wouldn’t let her ride a horse.
It was so strange to see someone from my old life out here in my new world. I mean, we saw this guy four times a year for three days straight each time for many years running. That’s more than I saw most of my relatives. He’s intimately familiar with my daughter’s bones, and is exclusively responsible for the hardware she carries, and for the strength and straightness of her bones. He brought her back from the brink in the OR once, a memory I have purposely forgotten. I couldn’t even count the number of early morning rounds that brought him to her bedside, or the late-night check-ins, or the hallway consultations on our way to grab the last double-chocolate brownie from the cafeteria.
He was unfailingly gentle and kind, and now that I’ve seen him outside the hospital, I notice something else; in the hospital, he was constantly functioning on two tracks, one being the pleasant conversation we were having, and one focused on the medical needs of the person in front of him. I imagine a tiny x-ray machine in his brain that lights up when he sees a patient, showing the silhouette of their femurs or humeri. I could almost see wheels turning in his head, considering the best course for her care. In the hospital, he would respond to questions in a superficial way, and then take the conversation a completely different direction, following some thought that had occurred to him while we were talking about something else. Out in the coffee house world, however, he was remarkably focused on but one topic. And now I understand.
Even if we still lived in Chicago, Sophia wouldn’t be a patient of Dr. Smith’s anymore. She hasn’t had any orthopedic issues in years, a function of her age, and she’s too old to be a Shriner’s patient now. But she and I have both missed the place, the hospital that was our second home, and the people who were our family in that home. Dr. Smith is, for all intents and purposes, the patriarchy of that family, the face of the organization that did so much for my daughter. Our nurses and PTs and maintenance and nutritionists and social workers and child life therapists…all worked toward making her time there comfortable and happy and less frightening. But the reason we were there came down to him. Dr. Smith was at the center of her bone care.
And for a family with a kid with OI, bone care takes up a huge chunk of life.
As I stood there talking with Dr. Smith about his visit to Portland, I couldn’t help but think of all the times he’d cradled my daughter’s fragile body in his hands. Of all the times he stood next to her in the OR for hours, carefully correcting her bone malformations so she could be more functional. All those times he came out into the surgical waiting room to tell me, in his aw-shucks Eeyore delivery, that everything looked good, and she’d be ready to see me soon.
I wanted to thank him. For taking such good care of my baby, for knowing all he knows and using it to help kids like Sophia and all the others I know, for doing so relentlessly for so many years, for making their lives so much better, for having a beautiful hand in their development and improvement and growth. But the tiny coffee house was full, and he was enjoying some rare free time, and I couldn’t form the words right then. I would have just turned to a blubbering mess. Nobody needs that first thing in the morning.
He was our doctor. My daughter’s childhood doctor. More manifestly a part of our lives than you’d expect a doctor to be.
It’s too bad we can’t have a Shriners family reunion. It would mean a lot to us.