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Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2001

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Prospective grooms: get your head X-rayed


I know several people who claim they should have had their head X-rayed before ever stumbling into an international marriage. It's a statement I can never make.

For I did have my head X-rayed. In fact, my wife-to-be and future mother-in-law insisted upon it . . . as a marriage prerequisite.

And I put up no fuss whatsoever. After all, a pretty girl had just agreed to marry me with but one teensy qualification: "First go X-ray your head."

I could have been stuck with a much tougher trial and I knew it. Such as, "Why don't you go get a decent job?" or "OK, but first learn to quack Japanese better than a duck." Requirements I still can't match.

But nope. All I had to do was X-ray my head. A test I didn't even have to study for.

The story goes like this: My wife's father had been afflicted with a brain tumor and I too complained of pesky headaches -- pain I attributed to trying to quack out comprehensible Japanese.

So, to assure that the health tragedies of the parents would not visit the children, I assented to a CAT scan.

My skull was thus X-rayed from A to Z and then in hiragana just to be sure. The doctor plunked me in his office, studied the prints and then delivered the conclusion that you had to know was coming:

"Why, there's nothing there. Nothing at all."

Thus ended my initial tiptoe into the world of Japanese hospitals. Places that through the years I have since visited far too often.

But I have only been hospitalized here once. And this is that story . . .

First, let me say I am not one of those foreigners who believes Japanese medicine to be as circumspect as a Florida vote count.

And, yes, I have been in rural hospitals as grungy as used socks. Yes, I have had Japanese pediatricians examine my children with lighted cigarettes in their lips and yes, I have had a Japanese dermatologist, about to inject my balding scalp with steroids, bark, "Hold still. If I stick you in the wrong spot, you're dead."

But I also know oodles of fine Japanese doctors. Plus I have met my share of medical bozos overseas, including the clown who, in my son's first post-birth check-up, probed the boy's tiny belly and announced, "Gosh! I think something's growing in there!"

While my wife and I shivered with worry, the man brought in another doctor who confirmed my son did indeed have something growing in his innards. Something called "muscle."

So much for the disclaimers. In the winter of my second year of marriage, I suffered a bear-sized case of tonsillitis. Not for the first time either. But this time my young wife encouraged me to get it "fixed." A friend introduced a local hospital which would do just that.

I should have suspected something funny right from the initial check-up. Whenever I answered the doctor's questions, he would look instead to my wife, who simply repeated my Japanese.

"Sorry," the man apologized. "But I can't follow your husband's English . . . "

Once again I felt like a linguistic duck. Yet it was soon the doctor who proved to be the quack.

The operation went fine, despite my discovery that it involved only local anesthetic, a common tonsillectomy procedure. So I opened up, got shot with painkiller and then watched the Doc come snip-snip-snip with his scissors.

Moments later I was back in my ward bed with a stitched and rapidly swelling throat and the casual admonition of "Try not to cough."

But cough I did. In mid afternoon my stitches broke and, bleeding badly, I was pushed back to the operating room.

Only this time, when the Doc said, "Open up!" I found my face too swollen to move. He yelled at my wife to tell me in English and she answered that I had understood. I just couldn't do it. So he pried down my jaw with his hand and sewed me again.

Sort of.

For I could feel the job was not well done. Back in my bed, I sat straight and willed myself not to cough, an effort that lasted till evening.

At which time my one sudden hack broke free rivers of blood.

The doctor rushed in from a restaurant date with his wife. He roared at me to again open wide, alcohol on his breath. When his nurse dropped the syringe with the painkiller, he angrily shoved her away. He prepared the shot himself, rammed the device in my mouth and injected me.

Only the needle was not inserted. I felt the liquid squirt harmlessly against the back of my throat. But with his fingers in my mouth, I couldn't speak.

Now he began to sew my raw wound. And I was not anesthetized.

"Tell him not to scream so!" he bellowed at my wife. And when that failed, he called in his own wife to translate. She slapped her way through a pocket dictionary and bleated in junior high-school English, "Please endure the pain!"

Unfortunately, I had no choice.

To his credit, this time my poor throat was stitched to perfection.

Yet, I could not help thinking I should have had my head X-rayed before choosing this clinic.

"How do you feel?" my wife worried afterwards.

"Sew-sew," I squeaked.

A pun to which I can add but one further comment.

Please endure the pain.



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