The Onion Room

I would have quit if I weren't the boss. It started when my first patient arrived thirty minutes late but demanded she still be seen. "It wasn't my fault—traffic was terrible." The next patient screamed at my secretary for trying to collect a co-pay. After smoothing my receptionist's ruffled feathers, I entered the next exam room only to be handed a massive pile of forms needing completion—by tomorrow. Stir in the twenty minutes on hold with an insurance company, a patient hostile about her forty minute wait, and a man who fainted when his blood was drawn, and my day became as enjoyable as a balloon ride in a tornado.

The final straw? Mrs. Smith informed me she had stopped her blood pressure medication a month ago and had replaced it with an herbal remedy she learned about on-line. The web site claimed the 100% all-natural herb had "miraculous powers" to lower blood pressure.

"I'm just more comfortable going the organic route," she insisted. "Besides, according to the internet, the blood pressure pills you prescribed are synthetic poison." She glared at me as though I'd prescribed cyanide.

By stopping her "synthetic poison," her blood pressure today registered a dangerous 220/110. In short, her all-natural, organic herb was nothing more than an expensive placebo—she may as well have swallowed a fistful of crab grass. But try telling her that!

I exited her exam room a full hour behind schedule. My head pounded like a kettledrum and my neck muscles felt tighter than a banjo string. I rolled my neck, relaxed my jaw, and inhaled several deep breaths. The charts on my desk resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa. I flopped into my chair for a two-minute respite and tackled the medication refills.

What had possessed me to hang up a medical shingle? My images of Marcus Welby, M.D. shared little in common with the modern internist's life—insurance hassles, paperwork, and patients who believe the internet over their physician.

I scribbled my signature on the last prescription refill request and lugged the unwieldy heap to my medical assistant's desk. The way this day was going, I braced myself for the next disaster. Malpractice lawsuit? Power outage? Employee catfight? Today, they all seemed possible.

I bustled into the next exam room and greeted Marge Moreland, a pleasant forty-year old, who gazed up at me with red, puffy eyes. She looked as though she'd cried non-stop for a month.

Not surprisingly, she'd made the appointment to investigate what could be done for her irritated eyes. One by one I eliminated all the usual culprits: crying jags due to stress or depression, new mascara, pink eye, allergens such as ragweed, mold, dust, or animal dander. I scratched my head, perplexed. She then said, "I think it's my job."

I nodded. "I get it. You work in one of those "sick buildings" we hear about and now you and your co-workers all walk around with red, swollen eyes."

"No, none of my co-workers are affected, just me."

I glanced up from writing in her chart. "So why do you think it's your job then?"

"Cause they aren't in the onion room."

"The onion room?" My eyebrow rose in disbelief.

"I peel and slice onions eight hours a day."

"You slice onions eight hours a day?" I couldn't imagine! No wonder her eyes were red.

"Yes, and the room is small and unventilated."

Surely torturing an employee in a non-ventilated onion room for eight hours a day must violate OSHA safety laws. Rage welled up in me like a geyser.

I exited the exam room, stomped to my office, and rang up the local OSHA officer, ready to demand he investigate and improve her work conditions. Imagine my amazement when he informed me he had already investigated the room and no laws were violated. There was nothing he could do. "Since onions are just a type of food and are not a toxin or poison, my hands are tied."

"But her work environment is intolerable. How would you like to chop onions all day?"

"I can hardly stand to walk into the room, let alone inspect it—the odor is overwhelming. Trust me, I get a call at least monthly on that position. The turn-over is unreal."

I returned to her exam room and broke the bad news. I shook my head in disgust. "How long have you been stuck in the onion room?"

"Three months. My boss says I've lasted longer than any previous employee."

I crossed my arms. "Why do you stay?"

"I'm hoping to be promoted to cabbages."

"Cabbages?" I bit the inside of my cheeks to keep from laughing.

"The slaw room. It's the next step up in the company and it comes with a fifty cent an hour raise."

I stared at her in awe, chagrined at my own bad attitude and petty complaints. Here I'd sputtered all morning about a few insurance hassles, an overzealous internet reader, and a heap of paperwork, while this poor woman endured the noxious odor and irritation of onions eight long hours a day—all for minimum wage. Yet she endured, hoping for a promotion to cabbages.

Now, whenever I'm having "one of those days," I remind myself it could be worse. Much worse. I could be chopping onions.

Instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns, be happy that the thorn bush has roses.  ~Proverb

Sally Burbank MD