Dealing with doctors

My senior year at Kansas University was over in a flash. As a married student commuting from Topeka to Lawrence every day, there was not much to do but drive to Lawrence, go to class, study a little between classes, drive home, study a little more and go to bed. The only unusual event which made the year noteworthy was being called into the COs office. Initially I worried that the drill instructor had added my name to the class roll, and discovered that I was absent all year. On arrival I was relieved when told that I needed a pre-commissioning physical. I suspected this was unusual, as none of the other students were involved. I made an appointment to visit the Navy’s regional offices in Kansas City the following Saturday.

Through the previous four years, I had completed an annual physical report. It was a comprehensive review of everything which might be of interest to the Navy. The only item of consequence was two broken bones on the left side of different vertebrae, secondary to a football injury my senior year in High School. These fractures were reported initially, and had been repeated each year three times on the annual review. As I had done everything I was expected to do, I was not concerned about my complicity in the process.

On arriving in Kansas City I met with an orthopedic surgeon. We discussed the injury in some detail, and the absence of symptoms since the cast was removed four years earlier. Then he said that a fractured vertebra was a disqualifying defect for entry into the Navy. Two fractured vertebrae were doubly disqualifying. He proceeded to show me the listings for my benefit. He was right, of course. At this point I was both concerned and upset, as I had reported the injury initially, and each subsequent year for three years. This was the fourth year. It was clear to me that the annual medical reports were not read with any deliberation at all. Or it may be that those reading the reports were not aware of the list of specific disorders, which are, in and of themselves, disqualifying. In other words, if you had the condition, you were out. I could see my Navy career, for which I had worked hard for four years, flying out the window. I could not dispute the findings I had reported, and the physician was unable to waive the listings. At that point, he might have sent me packing, – but he didn’t.

He asked about documentation. When I told him the only documentation would need to be obtained from the chiropractor in Clay Center, he may have had his suspicions raised. He suggested we get a fresh set of x-rays of the area. After taking new pictures, and waiting half an hour, he came in with the films. He clipped the pictures on his illuminated display and examined them carefully. He said, “Now these two fractures were in the transverse process on the left side, right”. “Right, third and fourth lumbar vertebrae” I said. With this bit of confusing communication, he may well have looked at the pictures of the wrong bones. After a few more minutes, he said “I cant see any evidence of an old fracture of your vertebrae at any level, in the transverse process or in the main body of a vertebrae.”

I said, “Where do we go from here?” Then he made a startling admission. It was up to him to make a determination about whether or not I had a disqualifying defect. In my ignorance, I had reported a disqualifying defect four times, initially, and on each of my annual reports. At the same time, there was no documentation that the injury actually had occurred. As his x-rays could not establish a prior history, he was really in a fix. He said that under these circumstances, he would be able to go either way. He further stated that he had no basis for deciding yea or nay in my case. Then he said “I think you really have to make this decision for me. Do you want to go into the Navy, or not?”

I waited about two seconds. I had not anticipated this option before, and had been looking forward to graduation, commissioning, and fulfilling my contract to the Navy. At that point the Navy had paid for my education through four years of college, plus many great fringe benefits. The Navy had certainly fulfilled their end of the contract, which I had signed. Now that it was time for me to fulfill my end of the contract, I had a free pass out.

“Of course I want to go into the Navy”, I said. With that response, the deed was done. He filled out the papers certifying that no evidence of the injury could be found, and sent them back through the proper channels. I drove home relieved that I did not have to struggle with another career choice just yet.

This experience introduced me to the Navy’s bureaucracy of random bungling. There was no malicious intent, but it was clear that four years of medical records were never read with any understanding. Such records may have accumulated in such numbers, that nobody actually reads them, but simply filed them away for a rainy day. The rainy day had now come and gone, revealing the first of a number of bureaucratic bungles. The second set of bureaucratic bungles was not far away.

From that moment forward, I stopped reporting the old football injury in subsequent medical reports. I might have opted out, but I was within a month of graduation and commissioning. The draft was still an ugly reality. Without an x-ray showing the fracture, the Army could draft me in a minute. I had no interest in living in the trenches in the mountains of North Korea with a rifle.

As for disqualifying defects, I was trained four years, commissioned into the regular Navy, ordered to active duty, and served three years sea duty in the Western Pacific with two such defects. I never gave it a second thought, and the Navy never knew the difference.

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