“Tell me where it hurts”

By Pia de Jong

 

I must have picked it up just before leaving the US. Maybe that last day when I drove away from my home and, somewhat teary-eyed, waved at my friends standing in the driveway. But there it was when I set foot in Schiphol airport. Hello cough, hello headache, hello lousiness. I went straight to my new bed.

I recognized the symptoms. It was one of those sinus infections that had struck me several times over the past years. It never turned out to be problematic. Dr. Cody, the jovial man from the local health center – that wonderful place where they could always see me the very same day my symptoms started – without exception took out his prescription block and wrote the name of the medicine that immediately relieved my symptoms. It also made me sleep through the night, so I was back on the horse before I had even touched the ground.

To make sure he did not miss a thing, Dr. Cody sent me to all kinds of doctors, even when I suggested it probably was a bit overkill. His take on this was, since you pay an awful lot for your health insurance, you better make sure you get the best care available. He loved tests. He had a thick file on me. “Now, let’s compare with last time,” he began, poring over the numbers. He made me take baselines of my bone density, of my heart, my moles. He would tell me when to get a colonoscopy, a breast exam. He called me when I was a month late for my yearly physical.

“How can I take care of you when I do not have the appropriate data?” he explained. Dr. Cody insisted that I take a vaccine for shingles. “Come on, shingles!” I sputtered. “How bad can it be?” “Just get it”, he said. It was only after my mom got it that I realized what ordeal he had spared me from.

When I said goodbye to Dr. Cody, he told me to take good care of myself over there, in Europe.  “Remember, you only have one body,” he said. “It’s your most valuable possession.”

So back in the Netherlands, with pounding pain in my sinuses, I visited my new general practitioner immediately. He glanced at me, and without further ado, decided I had to give it some time. “Some time”, I argued. “Why? This can be stopped in its tracks immediately.”

But my new doctor was unmovable. “Call me in two weeks.” When I called him to say I did not feel any better, he told me to make an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist. I called end of February; the appointment would be midway through June. And, by the end of May, I was completely fine.

Health care in the Netherlands takes a totally different approach. I remember thinking Americans were overdoing it (for those of course, who are lucky to have proper insurance). Doctors hovering over me like helicopter parents, considering every possible scenario with every symptom… “First of all, let’s make sure it’s not cancer”. Doctors here are like busy parents, telling you to grow up and bear your pain. Their mantra: just sit it out.

My Dutch doctor turned out to be right: it did take some time, and then my body took care of it. Meds are often unnecessary, and can have annoying, even dangerous side effects. Also, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, so we better be prudent if we want to continue to benefit all.  All true. But, boy, did I miss Dr. Cody’s prescription book.

 

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer and columnist. She wrote several novels: Her debut ‘Lange dagen’, a coming of age novel, won the Gouden Uil award. ‘Saving Charlotte, A Mother and the Power of Intuition’, is a memoir about the year her baby daughter battled leukemia. Pia wrote for the Princeton Echo, US 1, the Washington Post, Het Financieele Dagblad, and documented her life in Princeton N.J. for NRC Handelsblad. Her columns have been published in Flessenpost  and Pia’s Amerika. You can contact Pia via her website. Illustrations are by her daughter Charlotte Dijkgraaf, who studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. Click here for the other parts of this blog series.