“I’ll leave the room while you put this on. The opening in the front,” the doctor says. With that, he hands me what looks like a huge white tissue and leaves the room.
During this first American doctor’s visit I’ve already completed a seven-page questionnaire, supplying details about every family member I can think of, and I’ve answered even more questions during my thirty-minute talk with the doctor. What is striking is that I feel fine. All I need is for this man to tell the orthopedic surgeon that I’m cleared for surgery on my broken wrist.
As the doctor closes the door, I unfold the white thing. That’s when I realize it’s a paper gown. I smile. Never have I seen anything so silly before. I undress and put it on. In the process, a tiny plastic ribbon falls to the floor, where I leave it. I sit on the table and arrange the gown so that it covers my belly and breasts. Then, on second thought, I get up again and pick up the small plastic thing, which I carefully place on top of my folded clothes.
There’s a knock on the door. “Are you ready?” I recognize the doctor’s voice.
“Yes,” I say, crossing my arms loosely in front of me.
The door opens and the fifty-ish man comes in. As soon as he sees me, he covers his eyes and cries out, “Oh no! You haven’t tied it!” I look down at the gown. Maybe I overlooked some buttons or strings? No, I didn’t.
“How am I supposed to tie it?”
“There!” he says, covering his eyes with his left hand while his right hand points at the chair holding my clothes. “That’s the ribbon!” he says, his voice alarmingly high. Maybe he thinks I’m trying to seduce him in my paper gown and black socks?
“That thing?” I reply, astonished. “That’s way too small. It will never fit around my waist!”
“Yes it will,” he almost shrieks. “You’d be amazed at what they can do with plastic nowadays.” With those words, he leaves the room again.
Sure enough, when I stretch the ribbon, I realize I could wrap it three times around my waist if I wanted to. I tie the thing and sit down on the table again. When the doctor finally comes back into the room, his cheeks have lost their red flush, returning to their gray shade.
I feel I owe the man an explanation for my strange behavior. “Sorry,” I say, “But we don’t have these in Belgium.”
“No?” he replies, his voice normal and steady again. “Then how do you tie your gowns?”
“Our gowns?” I say. “No, you don’t get it. It’s the gowns we don’t have.”
“No gowns? Then how does a doctor examine you?”
“Well, we just undress and stand before him,” I say, adding quietly, “Naked.”
The doctor’s cheeks turn dark crimson. “Oh,” he mumbles.
As he stares at the wall behind me, I’m certain he’s considering emigration to Europe.
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