Last week I went to visit my doctor (Dr. Sieben, or “Seven” as it means in English) for a preemptive cancer screening. The week prior I’d been summoned in to have blood drawn so they could test my thyroid, and this was my sit-down with the doctor to discuss the results. (They’re all about preventative health care here, and I appreciate everything about that.)
After he called me in to his office, one of the first things he asked me (after the reassurance that my results were fine and my blood pressure, may I just boast, was “perfection”) was about cancer in my family. In other words, who had it and what type did they have, etc.
I told him about my aunt’s breast cancer and then moved on to my uncle.
“Er hat…” I hesitated, “Schildkroete gehabt.”
Even as I said Schildkroete, I knew it wasn’t the right word. This happens a lot when at doctor’s appointments, simply because new vocabulary (in the form of symptoms or illnesses) come up all the time.
I was searching for the German word for ‘lung’ and it only occurred to me after ‘Schildkroete’ came out of my mouth that the word meant ‘thyroid.’
As it turned out, this was convenient. I needed to ask him about my thyroid, anyway, and this was a reminder and, even if accidental, a segue.
Now, I posted about this experience on Facebook but left out a couple of key points. Reason being—it would have been too long a story to condense in one little comment box.
Here’s what happened—rather than searching for the word I actually meant, or placing both hands on my chest as the start of a guessing game I play in these situations, I decided to just leave things be—after all, did it really matter for my records whether the correct information was there or not?
(This is just the way I operate, sometimes. I’m a workaholic with a lazy streak– especially in situations where it makes a real difference if you’re lazy or not. Like, at the doctor’s office. When he’s trying to take preventative steps to protect you from cancer.)
“Ich habe eine Frage wegen meine Schildkroete,” I said, hoping that I’d used the correct der, die or das form of all nouns involved. “Ich nehme Momentan Levothyroxin 125. Ist das zu viel? Ich habe das seit mein Schwangerschaft genommen.”
I was concerned that maybe I was on too high a dose of thyroid medicine. During pregnancy they’d upped my dosage several times, presumably to keep my thyroid levels as low as possible which, I’m told, is one more ‘key’ element of a successful pregnancy, particularly when there’s fertility issues involved.
The problem is that I’ve really been struggling to lose my last ten pounds of pregnancy weight, despite running and using MyFitnessPal and limiting myself to two glasses of wine only when I really, really need it—which is just about every day now that I’m back at work.
My hope was that Dr. Sieben would tell me I’ve been on the wrong thyroid dose this whole time, and all I had to do was cut the pills in half and the extra weight would slip right off. But, even as I played with the words I noticed his facial expression for the first time.
He was peering at me with definite amusement in his eyes. No mistake about that. He has a full rack of bright white teeth, and they flashed me as his lips struggled to stay closed.
Um…was thyroid cancer funny? Was a too-high does of Levothyroxine that might be acting as a tablet-shaped shield for weight loss funny?
Mr. Sieben grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil, and then he gave me a meaningfully bemused grin.
“Schildkroete, nein,” he said, and even gave me a little finger wag.
Then, in his painstakingly efficient way, he drew something on the piece of paper to show me.
“Hier ist ein Schildkroete.”
On the sheet of paper was a tiny sketch of a turtle.
“Turtle?” I guessed.
“Ja…turtle. Das ist eine Schildkroete.”
It turns out that I’d told the doctor my uncle had turtle cancer. I’d then gone on to tell him I had a question about my turtle—that at the moment I was taking 125 mg of Levothyroxine for my turtle, and was that too much? Did my turtle have anything to do with these last ten obstinate pounds?
The word I was looking for was “Schilddroese.”
Schildkroete vs. Schilddroese. Can you see why I might have been just a tiny bit confuzzled? Can you see why Mark Twain referred to it as “the awful German language?”
I have a feeling I’ll never live this one down with Dr. Sieben, and he even took the time to draw another little turtle on my latest doctor order—to have an EKG to check my heart–just because that’s what one does in preventative medical practice.
Anyway, after the whole turtle debacle, Dr. Sieben asked me to please remove my shirt and jeans and to have a seat on the examination bed.
At this instruction I hesitated for two reasons.
First, I was hopeful beyond measure that he’d hand me some floor-length paper gown like the ones they give you in the States. I have a way of wrapping my body up so firmly in them that I’ve had entire gynecological inspections without a single body part seeing the light of day.
I’m shy. I’m a prude. I was that kid in gym class who waited in line to change in the bathroom, whenever possible. Even to this day I go into the bathroom at night to put on my pajamas, much to my husband’s confusion.
Not only did Mr. Sieben not give me a giant paper gown, he just averted his eyes to his desk and waited for me to undress.
This is typical German protocol, as far as I can tell. Much to my chagrin, they don’t let you deck yourself out in paper so that you feel relatively covered up while having your naked body probed. The Birthday Suit is the best you’ve got.
Even though I know all this, I still hesitated and even went as far as to clarify my instructions. “Mein Hemd und die Hose?”
And, even after he confirmed it I was still unsure. See–there’s a reason for my double checking.
Two years ago, I went to Dr. Sieben’s office because I had tiny dots all over my chest and stomach. They were hives, but I’d never actually seen hives before (let alone experienced them) and was convinced this was something serious, like Scarlett Fever.
I told Dr. Sieben about the dots and he took a quick peek. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, his eyes clearly seeking inward for the best way to impart some terrible news. I braced myself.
“Those are hives,” he said in German. “You’ve had an allergic reaction to something.”
We both sat in a grave silence for a long moment, contemplating hives.
“Okay,” he said, finally. “Please go and make an appointment for a blood test at the front desk.”
I nodded, entirely expecting this step. Blood tests are about as common in Germany as reality TV is in the States. Doctors love taking as many samples of blood as possible, as far as I can see, and for just about every notable cause.
In a way, I looked forward to it because nurses always compliment the veins in the underside part of my arm connecting forearm to shoulder. Apparently I’ve got some winners there.
I stood up and collected my jacket and purse and was making my way to the door when Dr. Sieben called me back.
He gave me a confused look (oh so common at our appointments as you’re finding out) and repeated his initial nstructions to me.
When I actually listened this time, I realized he’d said nothing—literally nothing– about a blood test or going to the front desk.
He’d said, “Please take off your shirt, bra, and pants and have a seat on the examination table. I’ll be right back.”
No blood test? How did I miss that so entirely? Where was I? Had I just blacked out for a while?
And wait–shirt, BRA, and pants? Really?
I repeated his instructions back to him for verification, and he nodded. I repeated them a second time and pointed at the doctor bed so he confirm that, yes, right there was the place I was meant to sit in all my bare-nippled glory.
Dr. Sieben left the room and I hesitated before clumsily pulling down my jeans. Then I took off my top and, waiting until the last second, unhooked my bra.
I climbed up on the table and hunched forward, trying to hide my breasts under my arms. How awkward could a person feel?
And, yet, my own discomfort aggravated me. Here I was in Europe, for gods-sakes! The place famous for nudity above all else! People who had no sense of the world, whatsoever, knew that Europe was for naked people. And–it was nothing to be ashamed of—hadn’t I always thought it made sense that in Europeans grew up making frequent spa visits, seeing the naked body in all its forms and variants? Didn’t it make sense that people saw more than just one body type in the world? Wasn’t it a shame that the only naked bodies most American young people seemed to come across were from R-rated movies in the guise of airbrushed bodies doubling for starving actors/actresses?
Why was I hunched over? Grow up, Sarah! was my inward yell. Also—come on—what was the big secret? Dr. Sieben saw naked bodies all the time.
So, I forced my back up into a ramrod straight position—a power pose, if you will. I sat facing the door he was due to come back into and mustered up every last bit of European influence that I could. I acted like I’d been born to sit naked on a hospital examination table.
This, my friends, was no place for prudes.
A minute or two later the doorknob turned and the door was pushed open by my white-haired, lanky doctor. He was looking down at a file and started to say something but cut off, immediately, when he saw my bare chest confidently aimed his way.
I didn’t think doctors could easily be flustered, but there he was. He genuinely startled, took a little step backwards and looked down at the floor—he, the bashful one, now—before reconsidering my nudity.
“Ah, yes, Mrs. Blackwood,” he said, breaking for the very first and only time I’d ever heard him speak the patchy English he preferred to keep hidden. “Yes, okay. Do you—do you not wear a bra?”
“Excuse me?” I said, mirroring his horror and covering up my chest with both hands.
“No, it’s okay. Some women, they don’t believe to wear a bra.”
“I believe in bras! I have one. Should I put it back on? Was I supposed to leave it on?”
“Not a problem!” he stammered.
I jumped down from the bed and fished it off of the nearby chair, then turned my back and hooked it in the back before returning, red faced, to the bed so Dr. Sieben could examine my hives.
To this day, I’m still not sure why I mistook Dr. Sieben saying, “Please take off your shirt and pants” for “Please set up an appointment for a blood test.”
The two sentences don’t sound even remotely alike, no matter what language spins them.
I’m also not sure why I thought I was supposed to take my bra off when he’d clearly never said that.
And, I’m definitely not sure why Dr. Sieben seemed my equal in horror when he saw that, rather than wearing a bra, I was bare skinned. He is, after all, a doctor. A European one at that. Whatever the case—it made me yearn for that paper robe all the more.
In conclusion, my experiences at the doctor’s office never fail to teach me something. For one, turtles and thyroids are similar beasts, at least linguistically speaking in Germany.
Second, it’s good to listen to instructions.
And third—even if they’ve seen it before, and even if they’re European, nipples where nipples don’t belong cause embarrassment for all parties concerned.
I’m sure looking forward to that upcoming EKG.
How about you? Have you ever completely misunderstood/confused something and embarrassed yourself as a result? Please tell me so I can laugh and maybe even feel a touch better about myself.