What A loss!


It is that time of the year again. I am due for another surgical examination. Due to some old afflictions, I must see a surgeon once a year, just in case. Just to make sure that the Fates have been kind to me and there is no need for another surgery. In the twenty-plus years that I have making these visits, I have encountered problems twice. Years ago, I tried mentally to minimize these visits. I felt that after surviving World War II intact, I must be immortal. However, my perception has altered with age. I now dread these visits and am relieved when they are over and the results show no new problems.

The surgeon is always the same man. He is affiliated with one of New York's finest hospitals. He is highly regarded in his field and is, therefore, a busy man. Although I schedule my visits well in advance this doctor is always over-booked, months before my examination date. His office is always full, and the wait unnervingly long. I recall chatting with a fellow patient in the waiting room one day, voicing my complaint about the long wait. He replied that he had traveled from Vermont but that it was worth the trip to see the best doctor in the field. On each of my visits since that conversation, as I have sat in the austere waiting room reading old magazines, I have consoled myself with this reasoning: "It is worth the wait to see the best doctor in the field."

My relationship with the doctor has not changed over the years. I admire his skills, his kind and gentle bedside manner. Yet, our conversations are brief and professional. As I enter his examination room, I try to conduct myself in a business-like manner. Yet, I am frightened. I quickly undress and, after the examination, dress and disappear even more quickly.

This routine was changed during recent visit. As I arrived at the medical building, I took a wrong turn and a wrong elevator, and found myself in an unfamiliar corridor. I scanned the names on various doors and spotted a familiar first and last name -- that of a boy I once knew in Europe.

My memory wandered back. I saw a four-year-old boy, wearing short pants, clinging to a tall, handsome white-haired woman. It was 1944. I had returned to my home town, which was recently been liberated from the German occupation. For the two preceding years, I had been hiding. The war was not yet over, and our existence was still shaky. I tried desperately to lead a normal life, and even returned to school. Yet we were still frightened. In our town, few had survived. Those that remained stayed close together. So, I saw the child and his grandmother often. She cared for him during the day, while his mother worked. I never saw the grandmother without the child; he appeared always as an extension of her. The boy's family was an old, prominent family, well-known in the town. His father and grandfather were lawyers. The entire family survived the war, making them even more special.

My family soon moved to another part of the country, his to another. His family eventually came to America and the boy completed medical school, married and raised a family. Eventually, I also came to America, married and had children. Sometimes, as I walked through the streets of New York with my children, I would meet the boy's grandmother. She had not changed much since 1944.

My thoughts returned to my doctor's visit, for which I was now late, owing to my disorientation in the building and to my preoccupation with this memory. I found my doctor's office and was briskly led to the examination room. I was happy, rather than anxious, throughout the procedure. I mentioned to my doctor that I knew his colleague. Dr. C, when he was a child. My doctor's face lit up, and he asked many, questions. All I could really say was that the boy wore short pants and clung to his grandmother. My doctor asked me to accompany him to Dr. C's office. I protested, but was nonetheless led through the waiting room and into the corridor, passing patients still waiting to see my doctor. As we walked, my doctor introduced me to several colleagues as a lady who know Dr. C when he was a little boy. I learned that Dr. C is a world renowned specialist in his field. Dr. C's nurse informed us that Dr. C was in Europe, lecturing.

On that visit, I received a royal treatment from my doctor. He engaged me in colorful conversation, telling me his own life story. I left the building with mixed emotions. Naturally, I was happy that my health and examination results were good, and I was happy that the little boy from my hometown was so successful. And yet, I was sad, realizing that of the 15,000 Jews that populated my hometown before World War II, fewer than 400, only a handful of them children, had survived the war. What a loss. How many important doctors, scientists, artists and others did the world lose? What a terrible loss.

February, 1994