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Dominican Hand Jive

Posted June 24, 2002

The hand invasion begins two days after we arrive for our honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. My wife Elizabeth complains of an itching on her fingers, and I am less than sympathetic. How could you get sick on our honeymoon?

It may be my own horrible tendencies, for which I will be punished dearly in the next life, or an evil deeply entwined within human nature, but I am willing to go to any length to prevent any disruption of our beach vacation, including ignoring life-threatening injuries. Her condition may be maiming, disfiguring or fatal, but come on, we only have twelve days left in the D.R. You have the rest of your life to get used to the loss of your fingers, or hand. Or arm.

Since rushing home and seeking proper treatment is clearly insane, I fall back on an old skill I like to apply in such situations: play doctor.

Since we returned, my father-in-law reminded me several times, and I do mean several, that the only individual in our two families who has gone to medical school is he, and we should have called as soon as the condition arose. Bah. I parry that he did not study medicine in the tropics, and that psychiatrists are uniquely unequipped in dermatological crises.

I have dabbled in medicine, just as I have dabbled in medicines. Having once fancied the idea of a career as a physician, I became an E.M.T. I took the MCAT. I've read my fair share about tropical diseases, and I've volunteered at an emergency room. I sent several hundred dollars in application fees to medical schools. Admittedly, I was flat out rejected from all of them, and none of these experiences gave me any preparation for diagnosing Elizabeth's skin affliction, but I would in no way let my utter dearth of knowledge dissuade me from playing doctor.

I don my imaginary white lab coat and set to work. There are few deleterious diseases in the D.R.: malaria, dengue fever, rabies, polio. None of these illnesses hold any appeal. They present with classic fever and vomiting symptoms. Other than being inordinately stressed about the finger mutations, Elizabeth is in tip-top shape. I categorically eliminate the fatal diseases. This doctoring is going very well indeed.

Much as a real doctor consults useful medical texts, I consult useless, non-medical texts. You cannot understand the process of playing doctor without this critical concept. Much fine fiction and nonfiction contain a great deal of medical information without costing hundreds of dollars and requiring 7 years of training. Even if I could own such books, would I lug the obese Gray's Anatomy on our honeymoon? The fake doctor must be willing to consult whatever is available. A quick inventory of our luggage reveals:

    The Rough Guide to the Dominican Republic
  • The Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Alvarez
  • Creation, by Gore Vidal
  • The Feast of the Goat, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The last book of the bunch gives me great relief. Set in Santo Domingo, no character, major or minor, is afflicted by any skin disease of any kind. I take this as a favorable sign from Providence. Since the book deals a fictional account of the Trujillo assassination, I feel I should cross-reference with a non-fiction volume.

The Rough Guide is the jackpot, the mother lode, a Sam's Club of medical knowledge. Paragraph after paragraph confirms what I suspect: Elizabeth neither has dengue fever nor malaria.

Ah, what is this? Schistosomiasis? So we meet again, old friend. I first encountered Schisto in the pages of Lonely Planet: Costa Rica. I lived there four months without so much as a head cold; a painful reminder of my wife's incompatible attitude toward getting sick.

The play doctor is stumped. Could it be Schisto, who burrows into the skin uninvited, lays its eggs, then exits at an undisclosed time and location? In a bold, unscientific manner befitting my fake doctorhood, I come to a conclusion: it's not schisto. What are the chances my wife could pick up a rogue case of Schisto within the first two days of our honeymoon? That's just crazy. With the last major Dominican disease skillfully ruled out, I am determined to enjoy the rest of our trip.

Doubt creeps in, stealing my piece of mind like a midnight chicken thief. Maybe, just maybe, the things attacking her fingers could be extra-terrestrial?

Elizabeth abandons the halcyon notion that one should never, ever argue on a honeymoon. She reminds me that nothing in our vows gives me express control over medical decisions regarding her hands.

Hurt, dumbfounded, betrayed, I learn that Elizabeth has close to no faith with my assiduous diagnostic skills. She insists on seeing a doctor, a real doctor, infusing such panic into our discussion that I am almost convinced it is a good idea. She rejects my "these things happen" hypothesis, and takes no succor from my "it'll probably go away all by itself" prognosis. Images of indebted campesinos offering me large bags of coffee as a small token for my services vanish. My play doctoring will be ignored in the tropics as it is at home.

As we argue and delay, the small army of colonists grows within her ring finger. They are as determined as telemarketers to win back the land. Unless we do something involving actual medicine, there would be interstates and billboards to Wall Drug, tiny cities of alien beings selling off other fingers to other aliens, wildcat speculation of the real estate within my wife's hand.

Perhaps I should digress to discuss the size and shape of the hand affliction. It started out looking like a burn, unevenly distributed on Elizabeth's fingers. Painful to the touch, it looks like someone may have spilled scalding water on her. One might say, "It's obviously sunburn, you are in the tropics." But one would have no sense of my wife's complexion; given a mere fifteen minutes, she browns like a Mediterranean goddess, like a perfectly cooked waffle. Whenever we meet new people, at home or abroad, they ask her "Are you Spanish? Italian? Greek? Mexican, Cuban, Dominican, Brazilian? Funny, her actually ancestry, Polish-Russian, never gets mentioned. The woman tans; this is no burn.

Imagine our later shock when They arrive. The legions of Alpha Centauri. The pustules, blisters, boils, pods, call them what you will, they come, and they are ugly. Small at first, they encroach on several fingers. They grow and grow, and to our horror, two of the orbs join, creating a more perfect union, a monolith, a leader: the mother ship.

The perfect pustule is stationed on her ring finger, on her left hand, which means her wedding rings will not ever fit again. Now, it is personal, and I feel a dose of panic. I beg, plead, weep in every language I know, and some that I don't know, for the concierge of our hotel to get a physician. A few hours later, he makes a house call, with a seventeen year-old at his side carrying his black medical supply bag.

The handsome Doctor Palanco is all business. As I describe the condition, he is not at all impressed that I know the Spanish term for 'burn unit victim'. He glances at the alien skid marks on my wife's hand. Quickly, perhaps eager to display his bona fides, he does what any good American physician would do - he interrupts me.

"It is the bite of some insect, blah blah blah blah allergic reaction blah blah blah blah blah," he declares. While operating in crisis mode, I focus only on germane Spanish nouns, rather than record and file away the speaker's glamorous use of the subjunctive mood.

"What kind of insect was it?" my ever-curious wife wants to know.

"I don't know."

"What did you ask him just then?"

"Oh, something about the U.S./Korea soccer match last night," I lie.

My real question is something to the affect of: "But doctor, are you sure this is not the new house of the extraterrestrials?"

I am interrupted from further questioning by the crack of the hinges of good Dr. Palanco's sleek patent leather physician's bag, and he gives us two prescriptions: a nightly pill, and a skin cream to apply three times a day.

I am struck by Palanco's prescience. What else could be in that magical black satchel of his? Does he have vast supra-mental powers befitting country doctors who make house calls? Could he divine what medicines we need, or is he in constant communication with the life forms inhabiting Elizabeth's hands? Does his bag contain every available Dominican drug? It is a poor country; there can't be that many. Or is it simply a sugar pill and moisturizer?

We will never know the origin of our new pharmaceuticals. Even with the help of the useless but adorable pocket dictionary, I cannot read the drug labels. Although I have suffered through 3 years of college chemistry, and several more of Spanish, due to the considerable failure of multi-culturalism, the two worlds did not mix. Chemistry was conducted in utilitarian, soulless English, and Spanish was conducted in a world wonderfully bereft of polymers. Not once in any Spanish class was I asked: "¿Señor Robillard, cómo es toluene?"

I ask Dr. Palanco if we should remove the boils, or leave them alone. To my delight, he gives me a hypodermic needle and tells me to pop away. I am given carte blanche to play doctor from a licensed professional. It is a banner day. Not only is our honeymoon saved, not only am I indulged in hours of blissful blister popping, but my health science reputation remains unscathed. In serious fake doctoring, not giving the wrong diagnosis is just as important as giving the correct one. As for the suggestion that it is an allergic reaction, rather than a ragtag fleet of lost aliens from Alpha Centauri, I only say: what does a Dominican doctor know, anyway?



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