Re: Doctor James Kelly

The brain-injury physician achieves clinical grace

FAMOUS TO ME celebrates the notable residents of the internet: charming characters, dedicated professionals, the headstrong, the bold, our true gems. Some of our readers may be unfamiliar with these local personalities, but those of us with the good fortune of knowing them from around town know they deserve recognition for their work, warmth and integrity. If you’d like to nominate someone for this honor, please mail it in. This week’s star: Dr. James Kelly, in video.

In early 2016, when I was living in Bangkok, I spent a lot of time watching a YouTube video where a doctor feels up the head of former hockey star Pat LaFontaine. Eventually I memorized every detail: the soft white noise like the sound of a shell. The doctor, Jim Kelly, apologizing for his “sandwich breath.” The reassuring way he says the words “cool metal,” making me wish that someone would come caress my forehead with the back of a cold fork.

In a way, it became my landscape. A tiny examination room I lived in, within a large bedroom where I constantly scratched at myself.

Dengue fever was tearing through Bangkok, accruing an impressive body count. Influenza wasn’t uncommon, either, and rarer syndromes were also showing up: Japanese encephalitis, for example, the vaccine for which I never got, because I thought it too expensive. In retrospect, $150 may have been a reasonable price to pay for not having to worry that my brain might become a puddle, which is what happens when you get Japanese encephalitis.

Japanese encephalitis is mosquito-borne, like Dengue. And mosquitos love me. Every night I came home with fresh bites. Burning them kills the protein that makes them itchy, so I would heat a spoon on the gas stove and apply it carefully. Once, distracted by a lizard scurrying over the far wall, I left the spoon on the burner too long and it scorched off a quarter-sized patch of my arm. Otherwise, the procedure worked.

Watching a doctor work possesses a lovely mystery. If it’s done right, a medical examination makes you feel like you’re being decoded

Then I would watch the video again. Each nine-minute viewing brought me relief from fear of any velocity.

Having no responsibilities — I was supposedly overseas being a writer, but I was busy being nothing — I would stay up until 7 a.m. At dawn, the roosters crowed, then all the dogs would start barking, and then I heard the flutter of feathers as other, smaller birds went elsewhere. On the screen, Jim was touching Pat. Pat LaFontaine is a muscular dude with wide shoulders topped with a giant, cylindrical skull. He looks like he could casually stroll through a concrete wall. He seems like the kind of person who would blink mildly as tragedy soaked him up to the glutes. But his clear blue eyes seem sad. The lashes are long and luxurious. He speaks slowly and resolutely.

The video consists of a cranial nerve exam, which looks like a child imagining what a doctor does. Even homeopathic medications seem more credible, by the simple virtue of arriving in a pill. In a cranial nerve exam, the patient performs simple tasks, like watching a moving finger, while being closely observed for wobbles or lapses that might betray damage. The touches administered are almost lover-like. Your upper lip receives a slight tap while you examine the far wall. Your palm gets a little tickle.

Unless you’ve hit your head recently, you probably haven’t required a cranial nerve exam. But LaFontaine was a guy who got hit hard in the head with undesirable frequency. His retirement from professional hockey was provoked by the impairments associated with six concussions. Once, he asked his trainer who just scored a goal, not remembering that it was he himself. His teammates heard echoes of one-sided conversations in rooms where Pat sat alone. So the doctor is examining a particularly embattled cranium.

Watching a doctor work possesses a lovely mystery. You know what the motive is — figuring out what is or isn’t killing you — but you don’t know how which gesture will uncover whatever scary information is there to be uncovered. You know when the game is won but not how it’s played. Often, it’s as though a doctor sees you with more accuracy than you could muster yourself.

Having a diagnosis is so good sometimes. All pain is worse if nameless. That occasional weird pain in your testicles, or those spots on the edge of your vision. A doctor touches the cluster of abnormalities that populates your daily life and gives it a name. Now and then, there are exceptions. Like the time a doctor at a walk-in clinic claimed I had come down with a horse disease. When I told her I hadn’t been near any farms, or kissed any horses, she called me a liar. I sat on the examining table, wondering which life decisions had brought me there, while she looked up remedies for horse colds on Wikipedia.

But if it’s done right, a medical examination makes you feel like you’re being decoded. My first serious girlfriend was fond of this feeling, so occasionally, we tried to touch each other like doctors would. We searched along each other’s veins as if we might find sclerosis with our bare hands and closed each other’s fingers. But it never felt convincing: We couldn’t achieve that clinical grace. We couldn’t touch each other like anything but teenagers.

I became desirous of a doctor’s care. So I ate the coated peanuts, and watched the doctor figure out what was wrong with Pat LaFontaine

Alone in Bangkok, about nine years after that first love, about a month after the last one, after nobody had touched me for a couple of weeks (not counting the hips and shoulders I collided with on the skytrain — the bodies of people for whom my body was an obstacle), I became desirous of a doctor’s care. I considered going to the hospital for a general checkup. But I preferred veiling and observing my desperation rather than confronting it. So I ate the coated peanuts, and the doctor figured out what was wrong with Pat LaFontaine.

The doctor, Jim Kelly, wears a paisley tie, the kind of tie that says, “I’m not really interested in making a splash in the sexual marketplace.” His soft voice is suitable for addressing angry presidents and/or hungry dogs. With a short, bushy beard, he’s a bit of a mole person.

Facebook was always open in another tab. Was someone out there figuring out what was wrong with me? Maybe looking at my pictures, observing certain flexions of the brow — a telltale sign of how often I was secretly feeling like a sack of shit? At my abstract pictures of facades on Instagram, pictures of simple color and light instead of the people I was hanging out with, because there weren’t any?

At the end of the video, Kelly tells Pat there’s only one thing wrong with his face: one of his eyelids raises a little slowly — the soft tissues above it are still swollen after a blow that inflamed them a long time ago. It’s just a small defect. Pat is surprised — he hadn’t noticed. Which is understandable enough. Tracking the motion of your own eyelids is obviously difficult.

Other than that, there are no concerns whatsoever. Pat is apparently unbroken by all those big men who hit him in the face with hockey sticks. It turns out okay. It always turns out okay.

Every night, I turned off the video as light was filling the room, and I fell asleep, thinking about the blood flowing through my eyes, or the stomach acids dissolving my peanuts.

That lonely time ended, but I still look at the video sometimes. I’m not sure why. It’s as if I expect that, this time, Kelly will find out that there’s something terribly wrong with Pat’s brain. A fatal hemorrhage, maybe. You have three months to live, Pat. Use it wisely. Go see that girl you loved. Make sure things are all cool with your dad. Climb a tree at night and watch the wind smooth the grass.

Sasha Chapin is a writer living in Toronto. His writing has appeared in Vice, the National Post, and Hazlitt.