the doctor card

It was Wednesday evening when I walked into my home to find my 6-foot-2-inch 15-year-old son, Avery, sitting on the living room couch and sobbing, his head hanging down. I had just spent the last half-hour driving to and from a gym, while he caught a ride home with his basketball coach. No call, no text to let me know this change in plan, so my walk was that of an angry mama, preparing to launch into my lecture on communication and consideration when I noticed his tears. He looked up at me with reddened eyes and swollen lids and I felt my irritation retreating to make room for concern as I took in the affirmation that he was indeed still my baby who needed his mommy. “It hurts,” he cried, lifting his right hand toward me. It hung at the wrist as if he was holding a pose at the end of a jump shot he knew would swish through the net. I could see the right half of his hand was swollen. I wondered how much of his pain was from the hand and how much was fueled by the fear that he had broken another bone and would miss another summer of playing competitive basketball. This time last year his left foot was just coming out of a cast to go into a walking boot.

We headed to the pediatric ER where we spent much more time waiting than one would expect to wait in a mostly empty ER to learn that his hand was indeed broken. In two places.

Avery's ER hand x-ray
Avery's ER hand x-ray

Tears again streamed from my baby’s eyes. But just a few and silently this time, his face stiffened. I hugged him, "I'm so sorry sweetheart." He didn't hug me back.

Four hours after arriving, we headed out of the ER, his right hand in a temporary splint and my right hand holding discharge paperwork with the phone number to the Hand Clinic that I was instructed to call in the morning to get an appointment for Friday, definitely no later than Monday.

I called at 8:30AM when the clinic opened.

“The earliest available appointment we have is next Tuesday in our Walnut Creek office,” said the receptionist.

“What?” I returned, dismayed. “We were told that the surgeon wanted to see him by Monday at the latest.”

“Well, that’s our earliest appointment available.” Then, after putting me on hold for less than a minute to supposedly discuss with the surgeon who was in the operating room, “The doctor said as long as his hand is in a splint it's fine.”

Bullshit, I thought. But the little girl in me who grew up with free lunches at school and knew better than to ask for anything because the answer would be "no", accepted the Tuesday appointment, hung up, and called my husband, Robert, to vent as I tried to think of where else I could get Avery the care he needed.

“You gotta do it,” he said. “You gotta pull the doctor card.”

Ever since I became Vanessa Grubbs, Medical Doctor, whenever I engaged the healthcare system as a patient or as a parent of a patient or as a partner of a patient, I only disclosed that I was a doctor if asked. And I have rarely been asked. I've taken this approach because part of me has been curious to see how plain old brown-skinned Vanessa Grubbs would be treated. And part of me simply believes it isn’t fair for me to be treated differently, better, than the next person just because the letters MD follow my name. Like how being white tends to work in our society.

But now my baby was being affected.

I sighed, knowing that Robert was right. We hung up and I redialed the number to the Hand Clinic. But this time when the automated recording offered options, instead of pressing “2” again for “if you are calling to make an appointment”, I pressed “1” for “if you are a physician calling from a physician’s office and wish to speak with a physician”. A different receptionist answered immediately.

“Yes, this is Dr. Grubbs calling to speak with Dr. Chen*,” I said, I believe with the same certainty as when I said, “Yes, I’m calling to make an appointment for my son,” earlier.

“What is this regarding?”

“It is regarding fractures of the fourth and fifth metacarpals of my son's right hand. He was seen in the ER last night and we were told she wanted to see him in clinic by Monday at the latest.”

“But Tuesday is our earliest available,” she said evenly. “We have a…”

“I don’t care,” I said, cutting her off. “That is unacceptable. I need to speak with the doctor,” a little louder, a smidgen sterner.

“Well the doctor is in surgery right now….”

“Is this how you would treat your child?”

Now her voice trembled as she asked for my phone number.

Ninety minutes later she called to ask if I could bring Avery in at 1PM and to make sure he had nothing to eat or drink that morning. At 4PM, my baby was being rolled into the operating room to have his broken hand repaired.


Avery's hand after surgery
Avery's hand after surgery

*Name changed for privacy