The Universal Notebook: Travels in medicine

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The last two weekends were spent in the hospital battling kidney stones. To be more precise, I spent the last two weekends lying flat on my back in the hospital while a dozen or so doctors and nurses did battle with one particularly large and painful stone lodged in my right kidney.

For some reason, all my serious medical issues manifest themselves on weekends. But if all goes well, the offending renal calculus will have been blasted to smithereens by lasers and removed by the time you read this.

Edgar Allen BeemMy struggles with stones began in 1998 when I became so dehydrated on a dogsledding trip on Richardson Lake that I found myself in great pain. I went to see a urologist, a guy who had been a couple of years behind me in high school. He surgically removed a handful of jelly bean-size stones from my bladder. 

I summarily had stones pulverized via shock waves (lithotripsy), extracted via cystoscope, and removed through my back by percutaneous nephrolithotomy. The doctor who performed this last indelicate surgery was a nice guy from Iceland who subsequently returned to Reykjavik. 

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, doctors all pretty much lived in the neighborhood and came to your home at all hours of the day and night to combat fevers, chills, nausea, and pains of all sorts.

When we lived for three years in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Dr. Marino at the top of our street couldn’t get to our house fast enough to cure what ailed me. Just knowing that he was on his way at 2 a.m. was enough to make me relax and ease my suffering. The same was true of Dr. Rand after we moved to Westbrook in 1960.

These days, there’s no knowing where the doctors and nurses who care for you might be from.

The young doctor who saw me when I showed up unannounced at the emergency room two weeks ago was a young woman about the age of my daughters.

“Where are you from?” I asked her as she administered morphine and ordered X-rays.

“Minneapolis,” she replied.

“Oh, and where do you live now?”

“Minneapolis,” she repeated. “I’m a traveler.”

The doctor told me she comes to Maine from Minnesota for a couple of weeks six times a year.

I knew traveling nurses were a thing, but I’d never heard of traveling doctors: Hospitals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic pay top dollar to lure nurses and doctors from out-of-state to shore up their staffs. I know a nurse here in Maine who travels to San Francisco once a month. She can make two or three times in California what she’d make in Maine and she doesn’t have to work full-time to do it. 

From what I’ve read, a traveling nurse can earn as much as $300 an hour. COVID-19 nurses from away can make $10,000 a week.

The nurse who took care of me in the ER was originally from the Philippines. She worked in Georgia for three years before coming to Maine. The nurse who inserted my intravenous line was from Louisiana and came to Maine after military service. One of my night nurses was a young woman from New Hampshire who can make more as a traveler to Maine than she can just two hours away in her home state. 

Health care has become a young person’s game. And those young people may be from just across town or from way across the country.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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