Palpating the Margins at Otto

by

04/28/2004

5th Ave & W 8th St, New York, NY 10011

Neighborhood: East Village

In medicine, when you see an attending physician walking down the hall and you stop him or her to ask for an impromptu consultation, it’s called “curbsiding.” As a medical student, however, no one is ever particularly reliant on your expertise, and the average medical student can walk through a hospital without ever being pulled off track by the lapels of his short, white coat. Older doctors, it seems, are reluctant to hand out medical advice, but us budding ones want to shout out what little we know to the world.

Otto Restaurant is at the corner of 5th Avenue and 8th Street, a few steps from the Arc De Triomphe of Washington Square Park. It’s one of Mario Battali’s restaurants, Mario being the thick, wry, red-haired Italian Viking of a chef that made a name for himself on the Food Network and with a slew of well-regarded restaurants in New York like Babbo and Esca. Otto, though, besides its Germanic name, is a pizza joint. The pizza is good; I recommend their marinated cauliflower and eggplant caponata. Mario is known for having excellent wine lists, full of obscure but wonderful bottles from undiscovered peasant villages in Italy. His staff of sommeliers is well-informed.

I was at dinner there with my cousin, a beautiful, black-haired girl who, fortunately, looks nothing like me. We ordered wine and the sommelier opened the bottle awkwardly, left-handed. I noticed she was wearing an ACE bandage around her hand, from thumb to wrist. I asked her about it, and she claimed she’d been opening a bottle of sparkling wine and the cork had popped up with so much force that it had slammed the pinky side of her hand against the table. She’d kept on working, but it still hurt. I crinkled my nose in thought. She looked like she was in pain. Then the appetizers came and went, and with them my own medical ruminations on the bones and ligaments of the hand.

After the second bottle of wine, I was feeling a bit looser, ready to dispense medical advice. I caught her as she was coming out of the kitchen. “Let me see your hand,” I said.

“Are you a doctor?” I told her I was a medical student but that I was going into orthopedics. Had she been a nurse, she would have laughed me out of the restaurant. She started unwrapping her bandage. I admit that I couldn’t see too much; the restaurant was dark and my eyes were starting to cross from the wine, but I moved her fingers around, palpated the margins of her injury, felt a nice lump, and elicited a good amount of pain. The lump was in the middle of her fifth metacarpal, and it hurt her quite a bit, especially when I pressed on it, which was all I really knew how to do.

I put on my most serious face. “It’s probably broken. You need to go and get this X-rayed.”

She frowned and swore once. “You think so?”

“Yeah. It might not be, but the last thing you want is for it not to heal properly.” I nodded sagely. “Promise me you’ll get it checked out tomorrow.”

And she did. Somehow my trick worked. Debbie the sommelier believed that I actually knew what I was talking about. It was the high point of my medical training. I finished the bottle of wine with my cousin and somehow made my way home.

I returned two weeks later for patient follow-up and dinner. Typically in medicine, the patients return to you, but I was prepared to make a housecall for Mario’s fennel and bottarga pizza. Debbie was nowhere to be found. Our sommelier was a nice young Hispanic man. When I asked him, he told me that Debbie had broken her hand and was out of work for six weeks. I felt a wave of terrible embarrassment come over me. Would she have a job when she came back? Was it all my fault? Should I have kept quiet and let her hand heal on its own? I imagined poor Debbie with a cast up to her elbow, scratching at her skin with a pencil, well past the age when it was fun to have your friends write messages on the fiberglass with markers.

A month later I returned. She was back on the job. A wave of relief came over me. I shook her hand – it was strong. She had no trouble opening several bottles of wine for us, which were paid for by the house. One or two waiters addressed me as “Doctor.” I won’t tell you if I corrected them.

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