Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphobe or Triskaidekaphile

Am I a triskaidekaphobe or a triskaidekaphile? Seven-thirteen's an interesting combination, the lucky number up against the inauspicious one. I always pause on July thirteenth to remember a signal event in my own life. Forty-six years ago today, I reported for active duty in the U.S. Navy. Remember the draft? In 1965, every doctor served in the military.

Talk about culture shock. I'd spent my entire life in schools and medical academic institutions, where reason and logic ruled. No more. Authority was determined solely by the number of stripes on a shoulder, and that authority was absolute and often frightening. On my third day at work, the captain at the little Naval Air Station hospital told me we'd do a cesarean the next day on a woman whose condition not only did not indicate a section; it actually contraindicated that course. "Y'know why we're gonna do a section, Dr. Karp?" the captain asked me. When I couldn't give an answer, he shouted, "Because I'm the captain and I say so." Then, he blew out of the room. Consequently, I was up all night, surreptitiously inducing the woman's labor, and getting her delivered vaginally, an action that could have gotten me court-martialed. When the captain came in the next day and saw the patient had delivered (supposedly spontaneously), he said, "Well, guess we don't have to section her." After he left, the other drafted obstetrician, who'd already served his first year, whispered to me, "Whew. I didn't think he'd let a small thing like there was no more baby inside stop him."

I spent two years on the edge, never sure when the captain might decide to arrange to have me sent to, as he put it, "Veet Nam." At one point, he told all the doctors's wives that they would spend the upcoming weekend making curtains for the hospital, in anticipation of an inspection by D.C. bigwigs which he hoped would lead to his promotion to admiral. When my wife told him she was not in the Navy and subject to his commands, he replied, "That's true, you're not. But your husband is, so you have a choice. Make the curtains, or next week, your husband's in Veet Nam." She made the curtains. The captain did not make admiral, the only bit of proper justice I was witness to in my military life.

I wrote down every scary and weird episode: one day, I'd write a book. And I did. I called it, ARE YOU A REAL DOCTOR OR A NAVY DOCTOR? because of the frequent question from the wives of enlisted men, who believed that some of their doctors were drafted after medical training (real doctors), and the others were corpsmen who'd been promoted to officer status (Navy doctors). But when I was ready to send my book to editors and agents, a friend told me I ought to read another book about crazy military experiences. And when I finished CATCH-22, all I could do was sigh, stick away my manuscript in a desk drawer, and go on to the next project. The Navy got the last laugh.

So, where was the luck? What about the seven in July thirteenth? My military service had interrupted my residency, and the other obstetrician who served with me referred me to a superlative program, where I finished that aspect of my training. In the process, I became aware of professional opportunities I probably would never have thought of in other programs, the upshot being that I landed in Seattle, spent my medical career in a most interesting line of medical work until the scribbling bug became irresistible, and then I was able to do a quick sidestep into full-time mystery-novel writing. Now, seven books later, with the eighth (A PERILOUS CONCEPTION, due out from Poisoned Pen Press in December), I have no cause for regret.

True, I don't know how I might have ended up had the Navy never snagged me, but given the course I was on at the time, I've got to think I did well to have been sidetracked. Bottom line, you play the hand you're dealt as well as you can, and hope the sevens outrank the thirteens.

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