Thursday, February 17, 2005

The AIDS Test

Dr. Michael arrived at half past ten in the morning on a rainy winter day wearing a gray overcoat, a long-since fashionable paisley pullover sweater vest, and a big black case. He sat down across from me at my kitchen table and rifled through a wad of official looking papers.

Dr. Michael is a traveling insurance doctor. And his job today was to give me a physical in order to process the mortgage I wrote about last week.

What does getting a mortgage have to do with a visit from the doctor, you ask? Well, in Israel, in order to secure a home loan, you have to take out personal life insurance. I suppose it makes sense: the bank wants to know that if you die, they’ll be taken care of.

But there's also some strange rule that says if you already have a life insurance policy (which I do from a previous job), you have to get a physical in order to process the plan. Hence my visit from Dr. Michael.

Before we got started, I chatted a bit with the stranger in my kitchen. He had been in Israel for 15 years, he told me, was originally from the former Soviet Union. A fellow immigrant, he spoke Hebrew only passably better than me.

As long as he could understand “stop, that hurts!” we’d be fine I figured.

As I regarded Dr. Michael across the table, I imagined he once had grander designs for his professional life. Perhaps a research position in a major university hospital in Moscow, or a post as head of pediatrics in a private clinic.

But working for an insurance company shlepping from office to office and house to house...well, it’s certainly decent if not glamorous work. And with a broad grin permanently affixed to his roundish face, he seemed to have a great attitude.

He started by asking me questions.

Cancer? No.

Smoker? No.

Women’s problems? He snickered and answered for me, checking off the appropriate box. For some reason, the people filling out forms always seem to think that question is a real hoot.

The rest of the exam was pretty much pro forma: check the blood pressure, pee in a cup. Most of Dr. Michael’s big black bag was filled with a portable EKG device. I lay down and he strapped it on.

“You might feel a little electric shock,” he said, then winked.

I tried to think calming thoughts.

Finally it was time for my favorite part: the blood test (not...remember my encounter with needles last year?)

“You need to sign this,” Dr. Michael said, pointing at a form with lots of tiny Hebrew writing on it.

“What’s it for?” I asked.

“AIDS test,” he replied.

Now wait a minute. Checking for AIDS isn't something you throw around cavalierly. I was in college when knowledge about AIDS was just starting to make the front pages, and whether or not to get tested for HIV was a big deal. I remember friends nervously waiting for a phone call that might very well determine their future.

“What if I don’t agree?” I asked Dr. Michael.

“Then you don’t get the insurance,” he said matter-of-factly, still smiling, but this time without the comforting wink.

I was momentarily stunned by the utter lack of respect the Israeli system shows for issues such as the protection of personal privacy. And the implication that someone who is HIV positive would be ineligible for a mortgage seemed blatantly discriminatory. If we had been in California, I'm sure a demand like this would be illegal. But what choice did I have?

“Fine," I said. "Go ahead.”

I had been taken aback but it wasn’t like I was particularly worried. After sixteen years of marriage and no blood transfusions of note, I’d be pretty shocked if something showed up now.

But hey, wait a minute, what about that needle he was using...had I actually seen him break the plastic seal?

Blood extracted, Dr. Michael handed me a cotton ball and told me to press down. Israeli lab technicians, apparently, don’t believe in Band-Aids.

Dr. Michael packed up his gear and shook my hand as he headed out the door. “Hey, don’t get 'stuck' in traffic,” I quipped.

He looked at me quizzically; my attempt at humor falling flat on the floor along with the little cotton ball from my arm.

Well, I passed the test: I don't have AIDS and now, at long last, we do have our mortgage. And there was a positive side to the whole experience, too: I got a chance to spend a few minutes with a fellow immigrant to Israel who I might not have otherwise met.

Perhaps that, despite my trepidation for tests and long-standing dispassion for needles, was the real point.

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