In thirty-four years of working in and around hospitals and clinics, I’ve collected a wealth of tales from what I’ve seen and heard, certainly enough to keep me writing for a long time yet—but I have to be careful how I present them. Short stories aren’t much of a problem. All you have to do is fictionalize your names, settings, and dates to make sure nobody recognizes anything that actually occurred at a specific time and place. But nonfiction, even what’s termed creative nonfiction, is another matter entirely, even here in eastern Kentucky where we live hip-deep in a conservative culture that actively requires gossip to maintain its customs and social mores. Not only is the betrayal of a person’s confidential information illegal under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, it’s simply not right, cuss and durn it. So over the years in recounting medical stories either comedic or tragic, I’ve developed similar guidelines. First, I use no real names, and if a given name becomes necessary I make note of the fact that it’s a pseudonym—such as, say, Brother Drye in my bootlegger story. I suppose that for need I could call the other minister I’ve mentioned in that same column and a couple of others, the Rev. Elisha Beare; he agreed that I was at least a half wit, after all. Secondly, I let my stories marinate a few years before telling them, just enough to enlist the help of Father Time to make specifics a little fuzzier. Thirdly, I’m deliberately vague about location. In other words, what I want to do is convey the comedy or tragedy of the story’s action itself, not make fun of anyone for simply being human. Between us all we have enough faults and failings to go around and fill up a dozen spare baskets besides, just like the good Lord with the loaves and fishes except we’re multiplying mistakes rather than food.
So where to start, as a reference point? The best place I can see is the context that the great majority of my readers are probably most familiar with, not a real hospital itself, but the medical programs that are always available to watch on television or binge-watch on DVD. That may sound like a lost cause. After all, as law officers will tell you about 99.9% of police procedural shows, most of these are wildly inaccurate, and the “reality TV” emergency room programs are as bad as or worse than the dramas and soap operas. Sweet Tater can hardly stand to watch such a show with me because I usually criticize it indignantly from start to finish. And when the Tater Tots were at home they loved “Gray’s Anatomy” every bit as much as I despised it. That made for some interesting conversations too.
But there are partial exceptions. Several years ago in a survey of law officers asking for an opinion of which police TV show depicted their own experiences most closely, of all the choices that were available the old 1970s sitcom “Barney Miller” won hands down. And in that spirit, I can honestly say that same thing about the hospital comedy “Scrubs”—not the zany plot twists or contrived lunacy in every script, though that’s part of the show’s appeal to me, but simply the general atmosphere of absurdity you know you’re going to be dealing with every time you watch it. That’s pretty much the same ambiance you can expect in a hospital on any given day, and the key to success is managing to pull something at least resembling sense out of the senseless. Maybe you have to have been there to understand what I’m trying to say, but at least to these middle-aged eyes “Scrubs” has the common everyday temperament of a hospital down pat. A lot of techs and nurses agree with me, too.
And so the old Common Tater just might start to bring up the occasional medical drama from recollection’s vaults, always, rest assured, carefully self-edited. From the long-ago Independence Day a guy got so drunk he thought a firecracker was a cigarette and put it in his mouth and lit it and came to the ER with a couple of his teeth blown out, to the more recent holiday escapade wherein another drunk got the trigger of a pistol stuck in his belt buckle somehow and shot off something much more precious to him than teeth, I’ve often found my profession and my places of employment frustrating—but never boring. And by the way, happy Fourth of July, one day late.