Touching the Mezuzah

First published in 2012.

A mezuzah (Hebrew: מְזוּזָה‎ “doorpost”; plural: מְזוּזוֹת mezuzot) is a piece of parchment (often contained in a decorative case) inscribed with specified Hebrew verses from the Torah.

ט וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל-מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ, וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ. {ס} 9 And thou shalt write them upon the door-posts of thy house, and upon thy gates. {S}
                                        Deuteronomy 6:9

It’s almost 4:30 and I have three more patients to see before my Christmas mini-vacation can begin. Snow and sleet are beginning to fall outside. Our lab tech, who leaves between 3 and 3:30, just called from home to warn the rest of us that she had seen nine moose on Route 1, probably attracted by the road salt.

“Three encounters in thirty minutes”, I think to myself, “and neither of them completely straightforward”. I used to shudder when healthcare administrators called medical office visits “encounters” , but the more I have thought about it, the truer the word rings to me. Two people meet briefly and try their best to communicate in spite of sometimes very different viewpoints and agendas. I remember the phrase “Marriage Encounter” from my first visit to this country in the early 1970’s – an event where couples learn to see each other with new eyes and communicate more effectively.

I have three fellow human beings to interact with and offer some sort of healing to in three very brief visits. Three times I pause at the doorway before entering my exam room, the space temporarily occupied by someone who has come for my assessment or advice. Three times I summarize to myself what I know before clearing my mind and opening myself up to what I may not know or understand with my intellect alone. Three times I quietly invoke the source of my calling.

4:35 – In Room 1 sits Bill Boland, the fellow who always sasses me for my habit of knocking on the exam room door before I enter. He had been in with pneumonia and his x-ray came back suspicious for a tumor. The purpose of today’s follow-up visit is to make sure he is feeling better and to tell Bill he will need more testing. I raise my hand in an automatic door knocking gesture, but catch myself and instead touch the doorframe briefly and take a slow breath before entering the exam room, ready to deliver the disturbing news.

4: 50 – In Room 2 sits Wally Parker, here to talk about his blood sugars. His wife is in the hospital with a lower GI bleed, and her colonoscopy showed an ulcerated tumor that is almost certainly malignant. “Why is he here tonight instead of at Mary’s bedside?” I ask myself as my hand reaches for the doorframe. At the same time I try to clear my mind of my own clutter and my guesses why he has chosen to keep this appointment under these circumstances.

5 o’clock – The child in Room 3 is an 11-month-old with a fever. He belongs to the pediatric group in town, but probably the slick roads and the late hour are the reasons he is here. A new patient, and a sick child at that, requires me to be unhurried and receptive. I must be aware of how well we connect, so neither this child’s young mother nor I miss something important in our encounter. In this case, the child has an ear infection and the mother is a registered nurse with an older child at home who has recurrent ear infections.

At 5:15 I wish Autumn and the new receptionist a Merry Christmas before I leave through the back door.

Route 1 is covered with snow and the large flakes coming right at me make it impossible to see with high beams. I drive slowly with only my low beams, and don’t see a single moose.

Our house is all lit up for Christmas. In one of the sunroom windows shines the metal star-shaped lamp that hung in my bedroom window when I was a child. I remember coming home from school in the dark, looking up at my star on the third floor of our Swedish apartment building, even closer to the Arctic Circle than where I live now.

I can see my wife in the kitchen window, but she can’t see me in the darkness outside. I quickly stomp the snow off my boots on the wooden steps outside the door. My hand touches the doorframe for balance, physical and spiritual, and as a brief gesture of love and blessing:

I am home. It is Christmas.

5 Responses to “Touching the Mezuzah”

  1. 1 DrMash December 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Great story. I love that feeling of coming home to a warm house and my wife and kids playing inside after seeing patients all day.

  2. 2 Cher Lord December 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    So well written, allowing this reader to visualize the story and feel for the characters. Thanks for sharing!

  3. 3 DrBoo December 25, 2012 at 5:32 am

    Merry Christmas to you, too!

  4. 4 January 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    I enjoyed this very much! You bring up our use of language in medicine with your description of the word encounter. It is interesting how in our medical language we use words like “complains” of or an “unfortunate” patient. Now, we have added “encounter”, and for my organization, “member”. In this post you nicely justify this use of encounter and show it in such a powerful light: an encounter between two people with a potentially powerful meaning to be shared.
    Not meaning to blatantly advertise 🙂 but, I wrote a blog post about our use of language that might be interesting:

  5. 5 Gary M. Levin March 31, 2013 at 1:03 am

    Wonderful recollections….we all have our lives not lived…Frost’s “The Road not Travelled”. Humanity….we all wonder, “What if?” Especially those who are successful. I wonder how many of your readers know what “Mezuzah” means? Especially poignant tonite, during Passover…spiritual blessings as I leave and return home. Thanks for bringing this to my thoughts today.

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Osler said “Listen to your patient, he is telling you the diagnosis”. Duvefelt says “Listen to your patient, he is telling you what kind of doctor he needs you to be”.

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