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Saturday, Sept. 25, 2004

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Casting stones at Japanese hospitals


Talk about galling. Last summer my family endured the hectic tedium of a Japanese hospital as my wife underwent surgery on her gallbladder.

There . . . I've managed to pass that pun from my system, sort of like ridding myself of my own little stone. Let's hope I have but one.

In my wife's case, tests showed she had enough stones to veneer her entire innards. Our doctor suggested this was the reason for her recent nausea, and not her husband's limp humor, as she had suggested.

"Right," I told my wife. "A wisecrack a day keeps the doctor at bay!" A line that made even the doctor moan. Upon his recovery, he then penned a letter of introduction to a Tokyo gallstone specialist.

Now, I had never met such a specialist, and immediately pictured a staid gentleman with an unyielding passion for gallstones. I imagined the fellow with his pockets dripping with his favorite such stones and a T-shirt reading, "I 697 gallbladders."

But no. Our specialist turned out to be a razor-straight man whose only outward connection with his work was a rather rocky face, the kind that hit men have in the movies. He glanced at my wife's records and then spoke as if growling to a target in his gunsights: "I'm gonna cut out your gallbladder."

"OK," said my wife. Like most Japanese, she believes doctors are beyond reproach and might not have flinched had he added, "And I'm gonna do it with a butter knife."

But I am not Japanese, and I complained at once. Where was his sensitivity? His patient empathy? His bedside manner?

He blinked at me and then edged back to my wife. "I'm gonna cut out your gallbladder," he told her again. Only this time he smiled.

"Yes," she answered, "Please do." As if hypnotized.

Once outside, I insisted we get a second opinion.

"No," she countered. "My gallbladder has to go. It's full of stones. Didn't you hear him?"

"But he's just one guy. And what if he'd said that about something more vital . . . like your brain?"

"Silly. My brain wouldn't be full of stones. But if so, it would have to go." Which made me wonder if it had already gone.

Yet we were set. A month later, my wife checked in for her first hospital stay since the birth of our second son. Hopefully what came out this time would have far less appetite.

Now, some people enjoy hospitals. Some people enjoy waiting in lines. And some people enjoy pain. Hence, I cannot grouse too much about the rigmarole of checking in for an operation, lest I offend those who were there for a good time. I will say that virtually every hospital staffer we met was exceptionally kindhearted and cheerful. Not unlike amusement park attendants, minus the mascots.

"How about anesthesia?" asked a nurse.

"Yes, indeed. Please."

"I meant for your wife's operation." She then presented us forms explaining the process and what would happen in the unlikely event my wife "did not wake up."

My wife poked me. "If I don't wake up, then you'll be stuck with the dishes. Ha, ha!"

"Don't even joke about such things! My skin chafes so easily."

The nurse then reconsidered and agreed that maybe I did need anesthesia. I declined, however, under the argument that if I didn't wake up, the bad jokes would just amass inside until my entire body burst.

"That's how foreign physiology goes," I told her as she backed from the room checking her own pulse.

My wife had a single room, so I stayed as late as I could, then rushed back the next day at the crack of dawn. After all, she had cable TV.

Yet it was unnerving to see the closet person in my entire world prepped for an operation, with gooey tubes crammed up her nose and a funny little hat shoved on her head that didn't even match her hairstyle. We hugged and parted for what was to be a 90-minute operation.

Our second son waited with me while I paced. Occasionally he offered words of encouragement, like: "She's gonna be all right, Dad. So let's go eat. I'm starving."

Ninety minutes became three excruciating hours. The doctor called me in.

I was frantic. "Tell me my wife's OK! Please!"

The man gripped my shoulder, fixed me in the eyes, and with a dour voice said . . .

"Who?"

"Oh," he caught himself. "You mean the target. Yeah, she's fine. But more important . . ." Now he pressed a tin of raw meat under my nose and for the first time grinned. "I got the bastard!"

My wife's gallbladder looked like a handful of ground beef, the kind that supermarkets will offer mortgages on. Only with lots of black pepper.

"Those are stones," said the doctor, who seemed to think I could see better if the tin touched my nostrils.

I pushed it away. "But what took so long?"

He delivered a soliloquy about entering a zone, on becoming one with the gallbladder, and time stopping. There was also something about a butter knife. Yet I am not sure I followed his doctor-ese. Or that he did either, as he kept rambling on even after I left.

I stood there waiting when my wife's bed rolled from the operating room.

"I had a dream," she whispered, "that you did the dishes."

"Don't try to talk. Rest. The dishes can come later."

That afternoon the hospital presented my wife a small vial containing her gallstones. As for me, I got the bill. And, no, my wife would not trade.

Our son was away -- eating. So we sat together and listened to hospital muzak.

Which played -- would you believe it? -- "Like a Rolling Stone." And then more rock numbers. Talk about galling.

Oops. It seems I had one pun more.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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