Lessons From a Faux Doctor

By Paul Gahlinger

Provoked by a missing wallet, a real doc recalls a curious incident and an unlikely source of wisdom.
by Paul Gahlinger, MD
During a howling blizzard a couple of weeks ago I drove to my friend Al’s to sample his Christmas ale. A Yorkshire-style nitro-brew flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves — with about 10% alcohol. No Utah beer, this.

The next day, I couldn’t find my wallet. I called Al, thinking it might have fallen out of my coat pocket. No luck. I looked around my house, and then the medical clinic where I work and asked if anyone had seen it. Nada.

When I still hadn’t found it after another three days, I searched every square inch of the house, the car and the laundry. I also checked my credit card accounts but there was no new activity, making it unlikely that the wallet was stolen.

Losing your wallet is incredibly annoying, and the money is the least of it. Having to cancel and renew credit cards, replace your driver’s license, other ID, favorite picture, etc. is frustrating, to say the least.

Most of all, as a doctor, I worried that someone else now had my medical license.

This reminded me of an event when I was a young man. I worked as a logger in the Pacific northwest Canada. If you’ve read the Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion,” you get the idea. Taking down 500-year-old Douglas firs was a tragedy then and obscene now, but when you’re broke, you go where the money is. I worked near a frontier sawmill town that was nobody’s idea of a good place to live.

The event was the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to take away the town doctor. It turned out that he—or, rather, a doctor with that name—had vacationed in Cancun a year earlier, drunk a few too many Margaritas and had his wallet stolen. The thief found the medical license and decided he might like to try his hand at practicing medicine.

This Canadian town had not had a doctor in over 10 years, and the previous one was a gruff older man who clearly resented being there and had little empathy for his patients. The town’s surprising new doctor, on the other hand, was wonderfully kind, charming and considerate. He even told people not to worry about insurance billing and pay whatever was convenient by cash or trade. Always there with wise advice or a shoulder to cry on. Who had ever seen such a humble and thoughtful doctor! When the patient had a puzzling problem, he actually took the time to look up the symptoms and prescribe the recommended book treatment. The townspeople were delighted. They finally had a caring doctor whom they trusted completely. And—miracles abound—he seemed to be equally happy to be there among them.

Until the Mounties came. They cuffed the doc and hauled him off to the airport. There, with the propellers of the Twin Otter spooling up, a crowd gathered and yelled at the police to let him go. “We need ’im. Leave ’im here, ya bastards!” The cops tried to explain, one hand on their hats to keep from blowing off with the prop wash and the other on the hapless prisoner, shouting above the whine that he was a criminal, not a doctor. “WE DON’T CARE!” the mob kept yell?ing. “We don’t give a shit whether he’s real doctor—he helps us and we’ll pay his fine or whatever.” After the airplane left, the townsfolk mailed a petition to the government, offering to bail out the thief (who turned out to have quite a rap sheet), and let him come back to town. The Canadian government promised to send a real doctor, but never did.

After a week of mounting anxiety over my lost wallet, I decided to look in one last place (where I probably should have started from the beginning). It had likely fallen into the snow when I got into my car after I left Al’s place. So I went back to where I had parked.

A snow plow had left the street clean. Hard-packed snow and ice was shoved into crusty heaps along the curb. I kicked away the dirty ice, down to the rotted leaves and other fascinating gutter debris—a baby-bottle nipple, a soggy playing card, a torn-up mitten, probably run over a few times—and there, to my astonishment and delight, was my wallet.

So, inspired by my memory of the Canadian imposter, this is my New Year’s Resolution:

Remember that how you do something is more important than what you do. Do it with grace and compassion. Even if your work is terrible, you are out of your league, you don’t have a clue, or you feel inadequate—hell, even if you are an imposter—as long as you are considerate and try your best, people will love you.

And if you’re lucky enough to sample Al’s Christmas ale, keep an eye on your wallet.

Paul Gahlinger is the founder of MediCruiser, a medical clinic and house call service, and was voted Best of Salt Lake, Physicians and Surgeons, 2008. He is a frequent contributor to CATALYST.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2008.