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The Amateur Patient

At some point during those salad days between my college graduation and getting married, I attended a charity auction event for a local school where I won croquet lessons for four. Now these were not just any lessons – they were to be given by the World Croquet Federation Champion at The Chattooga Club in Cashiers, NC.

I grew up with Dark Corner croquet, a particularly brutal form of the game played by my brothers and their friends that usually ended in shattered croquet balls, broken mallets, and the occasional dog fight. Dark Corner croquet was closely related in style to a variant of the game played by my uncles over in Little Chicago during the 1930s. There were two major differences. Rather than grass, Little Chicago croquet was played on a clay court and the games were fueled with alcohol. Which should come as no surprise since Little Chicago was the distribution hub for the Dark Corner’s most profitable export – bootleg whiskey. 

After finding three friends confident enough in their masculinity to come with me, we arrived at The Chattooga Club on a bright Saturday morning for our lessons. The croquet greens, designed by the greenskeeper from Augusta National and built on the side of a granite-faced mountain, were spectacular. We were greeted by the world champion, an Englishman named Robert Fulford and another player from South Africa, Reg Bamford, both around the same age as us.

During our conversation, Fulford mentioned that he had just turned professional – as in a professional croquet player. I knew that we had entered the age of specialization and by extension, expertism and professionalism in everything from dog walking to plumbing. But to have it spread to croquet? I was surprised.

I asked Fulford if there was any money in it. He replied with a laugh and said no and as a matter of fact, he was looking to sell his Omega wristwatch that he had recently won in a tournament because he did not have enough money to fly back to England. Bamford said that he was pursuing his accountancy degree and would remain an amateur. I have always thought that their conversation perfectly illustrated the difference between a professional and an amateur – an amateur doesn’t have to pawn his watch to get home.

I was reminded of the spread of professionalism during a recent doctor’s visit. My son and I were in the waiting room at his hematologist’s office when a couple came through the door and immediately demanded to be seen. They loudly announced the time of their appointment and that they had to be at another appointment soon, and so on and so forth. I have spent hours in waiting rooms over the years and have observed closely the habits of the professional patient. I could see by their discourteous attitude toward the healthcare staff that this couple belonged to that group.  

Now do not confuse the actions of the professional patient with being a self-advocate for one’s health. The difference lies with the expectation and the attitude displayed by the patient.

I have been thinking about my amateur patient status ever since I left the General Assembly. I have avoided turning into a professional patient just as I avoided turning into a professional politician during my years in Columbia – two very different professionals bound together by the same sense of entitlement. Should I channel my amateur political skills into that of being an amateur patient advocate?  Is there an overlap of intent of political purpose? I believe so.

Way before Jefferson grafted John Locke’s “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” catchphrase into the Declaration of Independence, Locke defined “civil interests” in his A Letter Concerning Toleration this way: “Civil interests I call life, liberty, health and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, house, furniture, and the like.” Note that indolency meant lack of bodily pain in Locke’s day. Think about this definition especially if you are a conservative. Alongside life, liberty and property, Locke said that an individual had a right to pursue health and relief from bodily pain without government interference.

Since individuals are the best advocates for themselves and others in pursuing or defending what Locke called “civil interests” it seems a straightforward answer to me. Though I never wanted to make my health issues my life, the role of patient advocate awaits me – just so I don’t have to pawn my watch.