Doctors in the United States are known for, among other more positive qualities, their illegible handwriting. Their scribbles on prescriptions and instructions have been a standard joke in television sitcoms and stand-up comedy routines for decades. While frequently exaggerated, examples of doctors’ notorious penmanship causing problems do occur and true tales exit hospitals and clinics nationwide through the lobby and out the automatic doors.
I recall many years ago, perhaps the late 1960s or early ‘70s, long before computers streamlined the medical world, rushing to the hospital to join my mother who had been admitted for sudden back problems. She was in pain and placed in the outdated practice of traction. On the wall, above the head of her bed, was the handwritten sign “E. Washburn.”
When a nurse entered, I asked who E. Washburn was? She looked at my mother, then the handwritten papers on her clipboard and pointed. “Doesn’t that say Washburn?” she asked.
“My mother’s name is Elizabeth Nussbaum.”
“Oh, her name is Elizabeth. We couldn’t decide if it was Eleanor or Edith. So, we just wrote an “E” until her records were delivered or the doctor got here,” the nurse explained. “We were instructed to get her in traction STAT.” I eyed the notation. I didn’t see STAT. I saw 57A7. Had ASAP been written, I probably would have interpreted it as Teepee 5 Teepee R.
When we checked Mom out of the hospital a few days later, I intentionally scribbled an illegible scrawl that looked just a little like “E. Washburn.”
For the remainder of my American life, I flashed on that incident whenever a doctor handed me a prescription. How can the pharmacist read this? I thought. Drug names are complicated and often long. How do I know I’m getting cephalexin and not a misread ciprofloxacin or a laxative instead of Lamisil for a toe fungus?
But this was one worry I shed at the border. Mexican doctors write clearly, often writing prescriptions in Spanish for the pharmacist and in English for the American patient, if necessary. It is as if part of Mexican medical training includes penmanship. And I am so grateful for that.
But I wondered if American doctors could read their own writing. I had visions of Dr. Henscratch standing in a Piggly-Wiggly or Safeway aisle trying to decipher his shopping list, mumbling, “Does that say mozzarella or marshmallows?” I imagined the good doctor deciding “cookies and vanilla sorbet” was Carton of Virginia Slims. I pictured the MD puzzled by the two-word item that began with a possible “S” and “B” and deciding it was “several breads.”
I envisioned the confused doctor arriving home and being confronted in the kitchen by a spouse or partner who stared with questioning eyes. “Why is a two-foot-long baguette sticking out of that shopping bag? And why the hell do you have a carton of cigarettes trapped under your arm? We don’t smoke. We’re both doctors. We know the evil of addictions!” There was a pause. “You did get the sauvignon blanc, didn’t you? I really need it tonight.”
My assessing and judging doctors’ handwriting came full circle some time ago, however, when I found myself center-aisle in a supermarket, staring at a cryptic shopping list item. “CEZOM3MUL” challenged my absent-mindedness from the bottom of the list. Is that an exotic fruit, rare mushroom, or cleaning product? I asked myself. Well, whatever it is, I’ll get it next time. I completed my shopping.
As I inched forward in the check-out line, I came face-to-face, literally, with a seductive supermodel who flirted with me from the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine. That’s it! I yelled internally. It says “Cosmopolitan.” But why? Did someone recommend an article in it? Oh, I’ll figure that out when I get home. And I snatched the periodical from the rack.
When I removed the magazine from my shopping bag and lay it on the kitchen counter, I scanned the cover and noticed that among the content teasers scattered on the page was, “Why a collagen supplement is a must-have for women over 30.” I laughed. “For women over thirty? Yeah. Right.”
And then it hit me!
“CEZOM3MUL” was my needed vitamin and supplement list. Normally written in a stack, I had, this time, written “C, E, Zinc, Omega 3, Multi” in a perplexing, abbreviated, horizontal chain. I probably should have included something for my memory.
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