A man sees a doctor for help with a debilitating stutter. After a very thorough examination, the doctor relays his diagnosis. “Your penis is too long, by about five inches,” the doctor explains. “It’s dragging down your abdomen, including your diaphragm, and making you stutter. If we remove five inches from your penis, the stutter should go away.” The patient answers, “I-I-I-I-I’ll d-d-d-do a-a-a-a-a-any-th-th-th-ing.” Four weeks after successful surgery, the patient returns to the doctor’s office. “My speech is great,” he says fluently, “and I haven’t had a single stutter since the surgery. But the problem is that I’ve completely lost my libido. I can’t go on like this. Even if it means I have to stutter, I’d like you to reattach the five inches back to my penis.” The doctor replies, “F-f-f-f-f-f-fuck y-y-y-y-ou!”
Doctor jokes follow patterns. The most common model is the “the doctor is an asshole” joke.
A man is in the hospital with two broken legs. The doctor comes in and tells him that there’s good news and bad news. The man asks for the bad news first. The doctor says, “We’re going to have to remove your legs.” Then the man asks for the good news. The doctor says, “The guy in the next bed wants to buy your sneakers.”
A doctor tells his patient that she has terminal cancer. “Terminal?” she asks. “As in, there’s nothing you can do about it?” “Nothing,” the doctor says, “nothing at all.” “Well, with all due respect,” the patient counters, “I want a second opinion.” “Okay,” the doctor says, “you’re ugly, too.”
Another pattern of doctor jokes is the “the poor patient doesn’t even know how bad his or her plight really is” joke. In these jokes, there is either an overt or implied statement about the treating doctor’s lack of empathy. So, in essence, those doctor jokes are also “the doctor is an asshole” jokes.
Doctor to old man: “You’ve got cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.” Old man: “Thank God I don’t have cancer.”
I have a patient with a congenital disorder that led to both kidney failure and blindness. She sees me twice a year. She often talks excitedly about her boyfriend. She is morbidly obese and, in one of my darker moments, I’ve thought about what kind of guy would date her. I’ve thought of Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David (more precisely, the characters of themselves in their shows) saying, “You’re supposed to get an automatic upgrade when you date a blind woman. If she’s his version of an upgrade, can you imagine the specimen he is?”
I was always a bit uncomfortable with the way doctors were depicted in Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, however. Their misanthropy somehow stood out among all the other misanthropy on display.
A man told his doctor that he wasn’t able to do all the things around the house that he used to do. When the examination was complete, he said, “Now, Doc, I can take it. Tell me in plain English what’s wrong with me.” “Well, in plain English,” the doctor replied, “you’re just lazy.” “Okay,” said the man. “Now give me the medical term so I can tell my wife.”
In some jokes, the doctor and the patient are both assholes.
Man to psychiatrist: “Doc, nobody’ll talk to me. I have no friends. Can you help me, you fat slob?”
On Facebook, a physician who specializes in infectious diseases posted a picture of two pins he was wearing on his white coat. The first read, “No, you don’t have Ebola. Calm down.” The second read, “I’m not here to talk to you about Ebola.”
A patient of mine forced me to order an MRI of her brain given persistent headaches and her fears, based on her internet reading, that she had a brain tumor. The scan was negative. My secretary told me she called to discuss her results. I pretended to pick up the phone and call her, joking for my secretary, “The MRI of your brain is back and the results say you are fucking crazy. I’ve never seen them curse in their reports before, but here it is, the official radiology report says, ‘You are fucking crazy.’”
At another time, about the same patient, who calls all the time and reschedules her appointments at the last minute and often needs to be squeezed in or added onto the schedule, I said to my secretary, “She thinks she’s a V.I.P. but she’s really a V.A.P. – a very annoying person.” So now we just refer to her as the V.A.P.
A patient emailed me because, at age thirty-seven, he wet the bed and wondered if this accident had anything to do with his relatively mild kidney disease. I share my office with another nephrologist. Together, we laughed at his email. Then I emailed him back, reassured him that one episode was nothing to worry about, especially if he’d drank a significant amount of alcohol the previous night. “Did you?” I asked him, but he didn’t reply.
On his WTF podcast, Marc Maron reminisced with Louis CK about finding a broken computer on the street about 30 years ago. Louis brought the computer back to his apartment and was able to repair the hard drive, so that the two young comedians could read the previous owner’s documents. This was before the era of e-mail, so they essentially pored through all of the letters he’d written in Microsoft Word. They learned that he was gay and not quite out of the closet. They discovered that he had spent most of his parents’ money on “lots of crap,” including drugs. They picked up lie after lie in the letters he presumably sent out to his friends and family, comparing the inconsistencies from one document to the next. They were enthralled by this voyeurism. Louis mentioned he even tried to incorporate the story, years later, into one of his stand-up routines, because “people are always fascinated by that kind of shit.” It’s unclear if he meant “that kind of shit” to be someone else’s secrets or merely the act of eavesdropping on someone else’s life. “That kind of shit,” either of the intended meanings, seeps into nearly all of my patient encounters. The man who emailed me about wetting the bed, for example, had confided in me a few months earlier that he’d slept with a prostitute and, at subsequent visits, has confessed that he remains paralyzed by a fear that he caught a sexually transmitted disease, even though we’ve done a fairly extensive panel of tests to allay that fear.
In my first week as an intern, on the inpatient hematology-oncology service, I admitted a hemophiliac on a Friday night who died by Sunday of an intracerebral hemorrhage. He’d presented to the emergency room that Friday night complaining of a headache and severe constipation. He was given an enema and sent for a head CT. The next morning, presenting his case to my team, I explained my working theory that the intracerebral bleeding was caused, at least in part, by excessive straining to move his bowels. He’d burst a blood vessel trying to defecate. My first patient death may have been prevented by a stool softener, by laxatives, by prunes. It’s sort of a funny story when people ask me how my first patient died.
I can’t recall a doctor joke in which the doctor is a female.
At age 76, Sam, a retired family practitioner, received a kidney from his wife just before he needed to start dialysis. Six years later, he’s as healthy as any 82 year old I know. “My wife saved my life,” he says, and he’s entirely right. His life expectancy on dialysis at 76 years of age would have been less than two years. He has a coarse tremor in both of his hands, although it’s more pronounced in his right hand. “I’m pretty certain the tremor is from your Prograf,” I said, relaying a common side effect of one of his anti-rejection medications. “If this were Parkinson’s, I’d expect you to have some change in your walk, and usually there are some tell-tale signs in the face with Parkinson’s, too. I don’t see any of that. It’s all just in your hands.” Sam agreed. “There’s some old joke,” I continued, “about the guy with Parkinson’s and his masturbation skills.” Sam corrected me. The wife has Parkinson’s in that joke.
At a medical school graduation, the keynote speaker tries a joke. “You start medical school saying, ‘I don’t know.’ Now, as a fellow physician, please join me in saying, ‘We don’t know.’”
Doctors tell each other doctor jokes.
I asked my wife, who’s an internist, if she knew any female doctor jokes. “A man and his son are in a horrible car accident, and the man dies immediately. The son is taken by ambulance to the nearest emergency room and the doctor says, ‘This boy needs emergency surgery to save his life, but I can’t do it, because –’” “‘Because he’s my son,’” I interrupted her. “The ER doctor’s his mom. That’s a riddle, not a joke.” It’s a riddle our children should have no problems solving.
For a week during my third year of medical school, I worked with my father in the pediatric emergency room. The only patient I remember from that week was a 16 year old boy who came in complaining of a sore throat. He was worried he’d caught mono from his girlfriend. Like all medical students, I did a full physical exam on every patient I saw, eager to practice my abdominal percussion skills and perfect my use of the tuning fork. When I did a testicular exam on this 16 year old, I thought I felt a lump. After seeing the patient, I presented the case to my father, including my exam finding of a potential lump on his right testicle. I returned to the exam room with my father, who immediately began examining the boy’s testicles. “I don’t feel anything,” he said after almost a minute of rubbing the boy’s testicles between his fingers. “You said it was on the right?” he asked me. “I think so,” I said, “but it may have been on the left.” “Come here and show me where you felt it,” my father said. I walked over, my father let go of the boy’s scrotum, and I dutifully took hold. “Hey man,” the boy said, backing away from my grip. “I came in here for my throat.” I started to laugh. I tried to stop myself, but that effort made me laugh even harder. I looked over at my dad, who was smiling but had already helped the boy pull up his pants with one hand and was searching his neck for swollen lymph nodes with the other hand. I excused myself from the room and went back to the doctor’s conference room to laugh in private. When my father returned a few minutes later, I was still laughing. I don’t know what he would have done with any other medical student, but with me, he started laughing, too. “You can’t laugh around patients,” he counseled me through his own laughter. “You have to get that out of your system. You can’t do that.” We gave ourselves another minute to laugh, and then he sent me out to see the next patient.
Andrew Bomback is a physician and writer in New York. His essays have recently appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Essay Daily, Hobart, The Harlequin, Full Grown People, BULL, and Human Parts. He is the author of You’re Too Wonderful to Die (a novel) and Chronic Kidney Disease and Hypertension Essentials (a textbook).