At Random 1997: Kids have a better time at doctor

Editor’s note: This “At Random” column by Danny Heitman about taking his infant daughter to the pediatrician was first published on March 21, 1997. We’re republishing it today as a companion piece to Danny’s new column about that same daughter, who’s just graduated from high school.

When I was a child, our family went to one doctor, a general practitioner who treated patients of all ages. Before my daughter was born last year, I had never been inside a pediatrician’s office.

I didn’t know what I was missing. The waiting rooms in pediatricians’ offices have wallpaper and furniture in bright, primary colors. It’s like kindergarten for convalescents.

Along with toys, patients in some pediatricians’ offices can divert themselves with inspirational books like “The Little Engine That Could” or “Green Eggs and Ham.” As a whole, the reading material in pediatricians’ offices is a literature of hope, which is a good thing if you’re ill and need some encouragement from the printed page.

That’s quite a departure from what adults read when they visit their own doctor. Medical waiting rooms are one of the few places where grown-ups get unbroken lengths of time to read. What is there to relieve the boredom and ease their anxiety?

Dog-eared issues of Time, with 10-page speculations on global warming, Russian poverty and campaign finance reform. Ancient editions of Newsweek, detailing some political scandal so old that it has been overshadowed by at least six subsequent scandals in the interim. A ragged copy of U.S. News & World Report with a cover story on the rising cost of health care.

Taken together, the yellowing periodicals that adults read at the doctor’s office tell a running tale of despair. This isn’t what ailing and worried patients want to read.

A few coffee table books would be nice — some pastel landscapes that could be surveyed without much thought. Given the amount of time one can spend in a waiting room, a few anthologies of short stories might also be in order. But until things change, children will continue to have the best waiting room reading when they’re sick.

The examination rooms at the pediatrician’s office are another case study in good cheer as good medicine.

The walls have posters from drug companies with cherubic toddlers who have been restored to health and happiness with regular doses of Tylenol.

There might also be some vividly illustrated propaganda for child safety, replete with smiling youngsters who have avoided sharp objects and can wave to patients with not only one, but two, complete hands.

By stark contrast, when I visit the doctor as a patient, I’m ushered into a room with anatomical diagrams of various internal organs. Usually, to accommodate a clear view of the sinus cavities or esophagus, the human body appears in several degrees of vivisection. Viewing the morbid spectacle before me, I begin to feel like a pickled frog awaiting the knife.

Pediatricians talk to their patients with small words that are easy to understand. They pat their patients on the back and speak in soft, assuring tones. They smile a lot. How wonderful it would be if all doctors were like that.

The medicine that pediatricians prescribe for children takes an equally perceptive interest in the patient’s comfort. The drugs my daughter has taken for routine ailments come in appetizing pink and white elixirs.

Because my daughter dislikes medicine, I tasted some of her doses to see if they were bitter. One antibiotic tasted like a strawberry malt. Another antibiotic tasted like a pineapple pina colada. My daughter’s decongestant reminded me of creme soda. Her Tylenol is cherry-flavored. There’s an infant’s version of Mylicon, a medicine for gas pain, which has a sublime bouquet reminiscent of bubble gum. Even my daughter likes it. She smacks her lips and begs for more.

When she grows up, and aspirin becomes a bitter cinder to be swallowed whole, my daughter may come to appreciate those hallowed days when drugs were like ice cream topping.

Presumably, the pharmaceutical industry could harness the same ingenuity it uses to make children’s medicines palatable and apply it to drugs for adults.

But when is the last time you took a pill or cough syrup that was pleasant? I suppose that giving grown-ups sweet remedies for their aches and pains is considered indulgent. Well, shouldn’t people with aches and pains be indulged ?

After taking my daughter to her doctor’s office several times this winter, I’ve made a decision. The next time I get sick, I’m going to a pediatrician.