Is There a Doctor in the House? by
(142 Stories)

Prompted By Family Medicine

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My experiences in response to this prompt are probably very different from those of many other Retro writers, but, I think, fairly routine for a certain subset of us, and others of our generation.  I speak of those of us who are the children of doctors (“COD”).

My father was a doctor – an orthopedic surgeon —   and very much a doctor at all times.  He certainly looked “doctorly,” and I was even able to find, and use as the featured image, a picture of of him wearing his uber-doctorish white lab coat.  He finally retired at age 80, and was for a good number of years thereafter an unhappily retired doctor more than anything else.  But, to me, even then he still oozed of his former profession (“doctrinaire?”).

In any event, being a COD – for which one could take neither responsibility nor blame – had both good points and bad points for a kid. I spell some of them out below:

  • *    When you were sick or injured, you were given the best possible medical care from not just your parent/doctor, but from all doctors. And quite likely obsessive care from the doctor in your house. I learned this early on when I had the croup (see recent story).  My father watched over me seemingly every moment and, when I had to go to the hospital, other doctors dropped in all the time (despite the steam-filled room), probably for no other reason than to be able to tell my father that they had checked on me.  Similarly, when I broke my leg skiing when I was six – a routine break – I think my father had so many x-rays taken it is amazing my leg doesn’t glow in the dark now.  And he changed my cast – a tedious process for both of us – any number of times.  As a result of all this TLC, until I was much older, I never realized just how difficult it is to get timely access to a doctor, particularly on an emergency basis.  Indeed, a recent 8-hour visit to a local emergency room for my wife – her primary care physician could not see her on an immediate basis and her staff advised us to do this – confirmed this grim fact.
  • *    Same with getting vaccines. As I also mentioned in my COVID story, my brother and I not only got our three Salk vaccine shots for polio as soon as possible, but my father insisted on two additional boosters, and then the Sabin oral vaccine when that was available.  I always knew that, if there was a shot to be had, it would end up in my arm or my butt pretty soon.  I hated it.
  • *    Conversely, when you were not sick, you got no breaks. I was never able to fake my way out of going to school claiming illness.  My father could always tell that I was OK and sternly sent me onto the bus.  Ultimately, I went the other way and decided to pride myself on having a perfect attendance record throughout high school. Making lemonade out of lemons, as we have recently addressed, no?
  • *    Moreover, forget about routine physical exams growing up. I never had them.  Whenever I got a form from school requiring such an exam, rather than give me one, my father would proclaim that I was fine (“If there were something wrong with you, I’d know it”), fill in all the blanks in the form and either sign it himself or have one of his medical partners sign it, presumably to make it look more legitimate.  As a result, the first full physical I had was in my sophomore year of college, when it was required for intramural contact sports and it had to be taken at the college infirmary.  Ironically, I was the placekicker for our residential house football team — using my perfectly healed/previously broken right leg.  Although we played tackle and wore full equipment, as any football fan knows, the placekicker typically makes sure to avoid any contact whatsoever.  I was no exception and tried mightily not to go anywhere near a tackle, while reminding others of the steep penalties for roughing the kicker. Nonetheless, I had had my first actual physical — and was, of course, fine.
  • *  Besides finding it difficult to get appointments with doctors once I graduated from law school and moved away from home — where I had often been known simply as  “Dr. Shutkin’s son” — I also learned that medical care is really expensive, even with health care insurance.  Further, growing up (and I am not sure if this is a thing anymore), “professional courtesy” was always extended to immediate family members of other doctors, and all fees were waived.  My mother even continued to get it after she and my father were divorced; she was then “Dr. Shutkin’s former wife.” Sadly, there is no grandfather clause (or, more literally, “father clause”) to continue it indefinitely.
  • *    I particularly recall a myth among my non-COD classmates in grade school that “doctors couldn’t get sick.” Why?  Well, “because they were doctors,” or so the faux logic went.  Even when I would tell classmates that my father, the doctor, was sick, they wouldn’t believe me; it just couldn’t happen, they insisted.   As I think about it now, maybe this also explains Trumpism.
  • *    Finally, my sense is that, more than with any other profession, COD were supposed to become doctors themselves. I am not sure why this is or was.  In any event, it certainly never followed for either my brother or me.  We had no particular interest in medicine and our father did nothing to encourage us.  Ironically, even sixty years later, I recall him saying to me, “Son; don’t be a doctor.  Too much paperwork.” I actually think he loved being the only doctor in our family (or at least immediate family; his uncle and cousin were also doctors).  And, again, he was, for me, a terrific doctor.  At least if and when I truly needed one.  And he was always the judge of that.
Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Wonderful story John!
    I’m a COD too and never remember getting a physical exam either. – my dad just signed those school and camp medical forms. But of course he knew whenever any of us were ill and could diagnosis it just simply by looking at us it seemed!

    And he also never encouraged any one of us to go into medicine, and altho he loved what he did he often said he most admired engineers.

    He was a funny guy, once said, “I like my patients but they’re always so sick when they come to see me.”

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Dana. You certainly had the same sort of COD experiences that I did. And we both survived! Though my father saved his greatest admiration for musicians. He was a terrific surgeon, but could never master the piano.

      And great line by your father. Why had I never heard that one before?

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    Funny that your father never actually gave you a physical, John. But never any doubt that you had the best care possible. You prove quite conclusively that he saw to that.

    I agree that the state of our healthcare system is in tatters right now and fewer and fewer people seem to want to pursue that career (particularly during these fraught times – people are just burning out during the pandemic). As you point out, needy patients can’t get in to be seen in a timely fashion, which has driven those who can afford it to a concierge practice. Now there are levels of health care and the ER or “minute clinics” for those who really need to be seen, which is a ridiculous way to practice medicine.

    There is no longer the “professional courtesy” in many professions, I believe. Universities used to allow children of professors a free ride, but I don’t think that happens in the same way any longer either. You make many good points here, but chief among them is that your father really enjoyed being a doctor and never fully relinquished that role.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy. You really understand what my father was like.

      And you make great points about the sad state of US health care today. Indeed, my wife and I are seriously exploring concierge medical practices right now. We realize such practices do nothing to better health care generally – in fact, they probably exacerbate the inequities in it — but we are, thankfully, able to afford them. In short, part of the depressing “I got mine, and that’s all that matters” mindset of today that characterizes so much of America.

      And yes, when my former wife was a college president, we learned that “professional courtesy” for college tuitions was dying off, but our daughters were then too young for us to have taken advantage of it anyway. I used to kid them that we wanted them to get football scholarships instead.

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Your father looks like the kind of doctor I wish were around these days. I love your portrayal of being a COD, John. Since my husband was a doctor (even though he was a shrink), we also got professional courtesies. That even was true of a vet who euthanized our parakeet by slamming it against a table and gave us half-off. But that’s a story for another time.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    It sounds like you dad truly found his calling. I’m sure it was hard to let go. The days of treating the family and getting professional courtesy are long gone in most parts of the country, but it sounds like you got a good deal, shots notwithstanding.

  5. Marian says:

    Another enlightening story by a COD, John. Because my partner is a frequent flyer at the ER because of his heart condition, I know that eight-hour drill distressingly well. After the first time I have always brought tons of reading, work, etc, and also now know which hospital(s) to go to based on the time of day and day of the week. I must give a shout-out to El Camino Hospital near us, because our last visit, just last month, took only four hours, and this in the time of COVID. Very impressive. And, we actually saw the same hospitalist physician as in previous times, who knew us. We felt blessed!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Marian. Good for you for having all this knowledge — and we are not know-nothings either — but why can’t we just have a system that is focused on the good care of all of us?

      I know; rhetorical question. But, as you note, Canada seems to have figured it out.

  6. Risa Nye says:

    Great story about your dad, John. My daughter is a nurse, and her kids cannot fake anything and get away with it either! An interesting perspective from a COD. I was among the ranks of the COT (children of teachers), and in his later years, I guess I was a COP when my dad became a professor!

  7. Suzy says:

    Never heard the term COD before, except to mean Cash On Delivery. Did you make it up or is it a common term?

    You and I obviously had similar experiences growing up. I love the picture of your father. I do not remember ever seeing my father in a white coat, even when I went with him on hospital rounds. I wonder if he even owned one.

    • John Shutkin says:

      I just made it up when I did the acronym. And, of course, it is also “DOC” spelled backwards. But maybe we could make it a thing. You know; like “Nitro.”

      And, yes, we had very similar COD experiences, not surprisingly. But my father wore his white coat so much he once wondered to me whether men’s clothiers might not offer doctors suits without the suit jacket. Smart ass that I was, I replied, “They already do, Dad. They’re called ‘pants.'”

  8. John,
    Just re-reading this week’s stories and thinking how your dad was unhappy after retiring.
    My dad never wanted to retire , he said he wanted “ to die with his boots on”, and he did at age 82.

    However my mother very much wanted him to so they could travel around the world! It was a big bone of contention between them, so go figure what the answer is!

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