Thanks for the (Lack of) Memory

The next time you go into the hospital for surgery, don't be surprised if they hand you a pen so you can write a big note to the doctor telling him or her where to operate, only the note won't be on a piece of paper, it will be on you. Surgeons, like many of us, sometimes have trouble remembering things. The difference is, when you or I forget something it's usually not which kidney to remove.That's why, according to an Associated Press story, it's become common for patients to write things like "Yes" and "No" on their bad and good legs, "Insert scalpel here" on their chest, and "You are here" on their gall bladder to ensure that the doctor will operate on the right thing. After all, doctors are busy people, you can't expect them to remember little details like which brain has the tumor, can you? "Why should it be up to the patient to do this?" you're probably asking as you push the forceps they left in your stomach during the last operation to one side so you can sit up comfortably.Good question. First, it's your body, and like the rest of your belongings, if you don't look after it, who will? For another thing, the prosthetic leg you ordered from the Harriet Carter catalog (along with toilet seat that plays Beethoven's Fifth, the magnetic sock stretcher, and the microwave-safe cat cooker) is non-refundable, and you don't want to spend the rest of your life hearing people comment about how you dance like you have two left feet because, well, you do.It turns out that operations on the wrong body part have become so common that there's a technical name for it: malpractice. Actually, that's what we call it, doctors prefer the term "wrong-site surgery", which is a lot like calling a plane crash "reverse lift-off" or the Academy Awards broadcast "entertaining".You have to understand that doctors have a lot on their minds. There are diagnoses to make, prognoses to figure out, and health insurance claims to fabricate. So anything we can do to jar their memory is a good thing. After all, they're not the only ones who have memory problems. Even Tatiana Cooley, the 27-year-old woman who is this year's National Whatchamacallit -- oh yeah, the National Memory Champion -- can be forgetful.It's true. Even though she can almost instantly remember 75 out of 100 names and faces, and memorize the better part of a list of 4,000 numbers, Tatiana says she needs daily to-do lists and Post-it notes to remember things. Like whether she's a doctor or not, and if she is, which of her boyfriend's arms to break and set when he forgets her birthday.This makes me feel a whole lot better. Not that she has to set her boyfriend's arm, but rather that even pros like doctors and Tatiana have trouble remembering the basic things in life. You see, I don't have the best memory in the world. I can remember to wake up in the morning, wash my clothes when there's nothing clean left to wear, and eat when I get hungry. I can even remember most birthdays and anniversaries, but that's only because I write them down in my day planner. The problem is remembering to look at the day-planner every day so I can catch the occasion before it's three weeks past.It's not that I'm absent-minded, it's just that, well, my mind gets a little full some days. It's so cluttered up with silly things I learned in school years ago -- like dessert is spelled with two 'esses' because you always want seconds -- that I don't always have room to store the last known location of my wallet. And there are so many useless (and embarrassing) old song lyrics stuck up there -- like everything Bobby Goldsborough ever sang -- that I can't go to the grocery store without a list or the only thing I'll remember to buy is the one thing I already have four of.Some days I live in dread fear that if one more piece of information enters my left ear the multiplication tables are going to fall out the right one. Well, the ones that are still up there, anyway. Then I hear people claim to have a photographic memory and I'm intensely jealous. For me having a photographic memory means I remember to take my camera when I go on vacation.I can only hope that if the day comes that I do need surgery someone in the hospital will have a better memory than I do and will remember to hand me a pen. Then all I'll have to do is draw a Follow-The-Dots pattern on my stomach as a reminder to the doctor of where to cut. It is my stomach he's operating on, isn't it?


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