I took my son to his pediatrician for the last time last week, for his 6-year-old well-child checkup. Dr. Gately is retiring at the end of June, and unless either of my sons get sick before then, it will be the last time we visit him in his office, which is located on the garden level of his Brooklyn brownstone.
When we found Dr. Gately 4 1/2 years ago, we felt unaccountably lucky. We’d been going to an office connected to a teaching hospital. It took me several phone calls to get anyone on the phone to make an appointment. Each visit was a long wait in the waiting area, followed by a long wait to be seen by an intern, followed by a long wait to be seen by the doctor who would verify everything the intern had done. And then there was the wait for the shots if we had to get those. We were anonymous, one of too many children the doctors would see each day. See, but not really see.
But at Dr. Gately’s we were people. Bernadine, his receptionist knew us by name the first time we visited. She returned our calls and scheduled appointments for the same day. Dr. Gately himself not only saw us, but talked to us. We had his undivided attention for 30 minutes, and he remembered from visit to visit things we had discussed before. We were people to him, not just patients. In fact, when I called to make that last appointment, before we’d gotten much past the “Hi, I need to make an appointment . . . .” Bernadine had already asked how we were doing, if we were far from the bomb when it exploded in Boston. Dr. Gately knew I was running the marathon. He and Bernadine had been concerned when they saw the news that day.
So it is difficult for me to leave Dr. Gately and entrust my children’s care to someone else. And while I am happy that he can retire after 35 years of caring for Brooklyn’s children, I am sad to see this era of personalized, personable care pass away. I don’t know if there are any other doctors like him near us, who work out of their homes, who know their patients as people, but I know they are becoming more and more rare. Even before Dr. Gately announced his retirement, it felt as though he was being squeezed out. He was no longer able to give vaccines because of the laws regulating refrigerators the vaccines were stored in. And it was because of that that I had to find a new pediatrician for my daughter.
I cried when I realized there was no way for her to get her vaccines somewhere else and still have Dr. Gately be her primary care physician. I cursed the insurance companies and their regulations. And then I called the office that so many of my friends recommended. I checked it out – it was a chain of offices, each office small and “personal” – and made the appointment, transferred the medical records.
My daughter’s doctor is kind and competent. We don’t wait long when we get there, and she goes through all of the milestones and answers any questions I may have. But that is all. I don’t know if she realizes that I have two other children, and that they are playing out in the waiting area while she examines their little sister. She’s never asked if our apartment is big enough for this girl to live in, or asked how the sleep situation is coming along. She is a good doctor, I believe, in the sense that she knows children and she knows medicine. However, I do not feel that I am a person to her, or that my daughter is anything other than another baby, a patient for whom she must recite the milestones so that I can tell her if she’s hitting them or not. If she observed for a few minutes, I think she would see a little bit more of what my daughter is capable of, or if there is any reason to be concerned with her development.
In the grand scheme of things, I know the important thing is that my kids are able to get the care they need. But I wonder how much better the care could be if doctors gave each patient a half an hour of their undivided attention, if they saw their patients as people, invited them into their home offices, asked them about the development of their lives, watched how they interacted with their children. I worry that laws, and lawsuits, and requirements and impossible expectations we have of doctors are making them less and less accesssible, less able for them to see us when then see us. And less able for us to connect with them when we are supposed to be entrusting them with the things are most important to us: our health and the health of our children.