Be Careful What You Wish For

What's your wish?

It is frustrating to be on a search mission for old medical records.  I’ve doggedly looked for various records from several doctors in a variety of nooks and crannies.  But when a nondescript manilla envelope with a return address of “Green Bay Plastic Surgical Associates” arrived in my Chicago mailbox I was too terrified to open it.  It sat there on my desk, seeming to taunt me with its nonchalant ability to so easily ruffle my feathers. 

 But a day of reckoning had to arrive and I gingerly opened the package, pulling out 25 or so pages of photocopied medical records from my plastic surgeon for 20 years, Dr. Harold Hoops. If memory served me correctly, I went to Dr. Hoops after my original surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Lynn died several years after my accident.  While I still have not been able to find Dr. Lynn’s original records, I quickly discovered that I had in my hands Dr. Hoops intake records and nearly 20 years of notes on my case.

There in his chicken-scratch of a doctor’s scribble were his notes on the history of my case: 

Medical Records : Chicken-scratch of doctor's scribble

Post-traumatic burn scars of the right leg and buttock; burned at home, age 2, at home stepped on lighted burner, stove, pant leg caught fire; initial care by Drs. Lynn and von Heimburg; St. Vincent Hospital, 3 months.

With just these few couple notes, I had confirmation of the stories I’d heard my whole life.  I kept flipping through the pages and then I saw it — four photos of my own leg, front and back, taken at Dr. Hoops’ office when I was nine years old.  It was hard to believe but I’d never seen a photo of my own leg like this.  I gasped in shock at the sight of it.  Then, turned the page and put the packet back in the manilla envelope.  I needed more time before I would be ready to look again.

“The Records…..Have Likely Been Destroyed….”

“I’m sorry I don’t have any personal recollection of the burn incident details although I do recall that there was such an incident,” Dr. Kaftan wrote to me the other day, in answer to my query.  Not only had my mother listed Dr. Kaftan, a pediatrician in Green Bay who is now retired, in my baby book as part of the team when I was burned but we’d known the Kaftan family as long as I could remember.  It was my Aunt Janet who recently encouraged me to call or write Dr. Kaftan — she had done the advance work for me and chatted with him about my contacting him.  I was excited to do so not only because the thought that he would have some recollections loomed large but because he was now the last remaining member of my team of doctors.  Drs. Lynn, von Heimburg and Hoops have all since passed away. 

“I am sure you are correct that the records of the Webster Clinic doctors have likely been destroyed……although I would be glad to inquire if you would like me to,” he helpfully offered. 

Ah yes, paper records.   An email that you or I send today lives on ad infinitum in cyberspace.  Paper medical records from before the 1980s are subject to records retention policies and typically destroyed on a schedule or shortly after a doctor retires.  Oddly, in our technology oriented world, they tend not to be converted into electronic records, the belief being that no one is interested in them any more. 

Medical records policies aside, I have to say this new information just sucks.  Dead ends and I do not get along.  When news of this ilk comes my way, I want to yell out, “Hey, I was seriously burned.  I’m not making this up.  I have scars to prove it.  Why don’t you people remember anything about it because I sure do!”  But that is how this particular ball bounces.   I will make yet another effort to contact the Clinic/s and see if anything remains.  Beyond that, there are a couple of people still on my list to interview about their recollections.  After that, my story moves ahead. 

Regular readers of this blog will recall that I eventually received my resolution on all this.  It’s that resolution that lead me to explore the accident and early records.  Whatever I find or don’t find from days gone by will be what it will be.  It would just be nice to have a complete picture though the reality is that all our stories are somewhat imperfect.