Teenagers With Scalpels
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For much of my life, people in the medical world had one attribute in common: they all looked ancient to my young eyes.

My first dentist had wrinkled fingers the size of hot dogs, but he could still fit seven of those blotchy digits in my mouth as he drilled my first fillings. Our school nurse had quite a few bristly gray chin hairs and was rumored to be well over 100 years of age. And the doctor who delivered me and saw to my health needs until I was eighteen had bags under his eyes so big he could have kept a stethoscope in one and reflex hammer in the other.

Things began to change when I made my occasional visits to the health services clinic in college. One doctor who examined my sprained knee seemed like a pretty cool, almost-middle-aged guy, a lot like the hip young professors who hung out at the student center or shot baskets in the gym. The nurse who gave me a flu shot was barely thirty and cute enough to make me blush as she rubbed an alcohol-soaked cotton ball on my shoulder before stabbing me with the needle.

  
 
As I’ve grown older, the people in the medical world seem to have gotten progressively younger. Now that I’m hovering around the half-century mark, I’ve reached some sort of median patient-professional age. About half of the people in white coats look to be my age or older, but the other half look like they’re about to shave for the first time or still have a provisional driver’s license.

The most extreme example was the urologist who performed my vasectomy a decade ago. When I asked how many of these operations he had done, he replied, “A bunch, you know, like, several.” From the rough way he handled my still-sore goodies during the follow-up exam a week later, I could tell he’d never been on the receiving end of the procedure himself. And the nurse assisting him looked too young to be a legal participant.

These situations keep repeating. When my wife and I took our twenty-year-old son to the emergency room with a broken wrist, his doctor looked like he could be on our son’s intramural soccer team. Kid Doctor decided to consult with his supervisor, so I expected a craggy old guy who smelled like mouthwash and mothballs. But the supervisor looked young enough to be the first guy’s slightly older brother, who just stepped out of a Gap ad.

The young cardiologist who oversaw my first treadmill stress test kept calling me “Sir.” The doctor who did my knee surgery last summer mentioned that we had some mutual friends, so I looked him up on the Internet and discovered he graduated from high school a year after I did. At a recent physical exam, the phlebotomist drew my blood while simultaneously texting her friends about that night’s Hannah Montana concert. (Okay, that last one may be a slight exaggeration.)

These youngsters have been wonderful practitioners (with the notable exception of the ham-fisted urologist, who I like to call “Dr. Knuckles”). I have great confidence in them even as I chuckle and wonder what they’re planning to wear to the prom. I never make any comments about their youth because I was once in a similar position. At age twenty-three, I taught my first college classes and was barely older than the students who rolled their eyes when I walked into the room wearing an ill-fitting suit to try to look the part.

What worries me now is that these youthful technicians, nurses, and doctors provide an unwelcome window into the future. How young will the doctors look when I get my bad knee replaced in a decade or so? What about the dentist who pulls the last of my teeth and fits me for dentures? Will the teenager on the nursing home staff call me “grandpa” as she feeds me my strained peas and applesauce?

Of course, those visions are better than the alternative.

A former student stopped by my office the other day to visit. She’s a smart, confident woman, young enough to be my daughter. She combines a professional attitude with a friendly smile and sympathetic, comforting eyes. Those qualities will serve her well as a student and will be even more essential as she sets off in her chosen profession.

This young woman just passed her certification exam to be a funeral director.

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