"We were sitting in an elegant French restaurant, celebrating our twentieth anniversary, when the maitre d' suddenly approached our table," recounts the wife of a Chicago cardiologist. "He whispered something to my husband, who immediately left the table and hurried into the ladies' room. The waiter looked puzzled, so I told him, 'That's okay. My husband's not a man -- he's a doctor.'"

-- from "Married to Medicine: An Intimate Portrait of Doctors' Wives" In the American marriage sweepstakes, landing a doctor is considered winning the grand prize.

"Most women assume that marriage to a physician offers the promise of an ideal relationship with an intelligent, dependable man," says Carla Fine, who wrote "Married to Medicine," and who is herself the wife of a doctor.

"In addition to ensuring her a lifetime of financial security, she expects he'll provide her with constant physical and emotional nurturing. She's guaranteed social status and happy parents."

But, says Fine, there's a little-recognized catch to this scenario of marital bliss.

"Every doctor's wife learns early on that her husband considers himself a physician above all else.

"You get used to going to parties alone, never knowing when your husband will get home, having the phone ring or beeper go off at 3 a.m., listening to gory surgical tales over dinner and being married to someone who -- when he finally gets home -- is frequently exhausted."

You get respect from the outside world, she says. But not sympathy. And she compares her own 13-year medical marriage to "being single while being married."

"How can you complain about never seeing your husband when he's out spending 10 hours reattaching an arm?" she shrugs. "Your needs seem trivial compared to those of patients who depend upon your husband for their very lives. There's no way to compete with people who are sick and in pain."

"I've been in the operating room all day and you want me to walk the dog?"

"I can't help Jennie with her homework; I'm behind with my journals."

"When my husband does do something around the house he expects me to stand by his side while he calls out 'Paper towels,' 'Nails,' 'Screw driver.' 'I'm like his personal scrub nurse."

These are just some of the comments from 100 doctors' wives Fine interviewed for the book she said she's wanted to write since her husband, Harry Reiss, now a urologist in New York, first entered medical school. At that time she started discussing the medical marriage in a "sort of consciousness-raising group" she set up with other students' wives.

"Later on, at doctor parties and medical conventions I'd talk with all the well-dressed, articulate wives," says Fine, wearing her own Dressed for Success suit -- but looking as if she'd much rather be wearing a peasant blouse and jeans. "Some were really proud to be Mrs. Doctor, and some were striving to find an identity outside medicine."

Fine interviewed a cross section of doctors' mates, representing varying ages, geographic areas and medical specialties (except pshychiatry, because "they have more in common with psychologists and therapists").

"The wives of physicians are like members of an organization with secret rites," says Fine. Her own membership in this "in group" prompted interviews to drop any "defensive and protective attitude," she says. "They were more than willing -- as long as their names weren't used -- to tell me their personal stories."

It's not that she thinks medical marriages in general -- or her own in particular -- are bad. "I'm crazy about my husband," laughs Fine, who just turned 35, but could pass for 19. "He's a sweetie pie.

"I went on rounds with him and watched patients practially kiss his hand. I'm proud of him -- he deserves it. But he doesn't bring it home -- I wouldn't stand for that. A less-balanced person might let that stuff go to his head. It's up to a doctor's wife to humanize her husband . . .

"Except for the older doctor's wife who pats your hand and says, 'You'll be lonely dear,' you don't hear about the downside. Yet the majority of doctors' wives are adamantly opposed to their daughters marrying physicians. Eighty to 90 percent of the women I interviewed said 'no.'"

One reason, she says, is "the prevalence of extramarital affairs in the medical world."

"The special sexual relationships between doctors and nurses are not a myth of Hollywood," says a secretary in the general surgery department of a Washington, D.C. hospital. "Most of the time [the physician] has a steady relationship with one woman, someone with whom he works very closely. He then establishes a life pattern with his 'hospital wife' and one with his 'home wife.' I probably spend more time with these men than their wives do."

"Most doctors' wives close their eyes to the sexual escapades which occur frequently in the medical profession," says Fine. The physician's erratic and long hours, surrounded by a coterie of "nurse handmaidens" with whom he shares dramatic life-and-death situations, she claims, make extramarital affairs difficult -- if not impossible -- to avoid.

"And what other field," she asks, "has beds in every room?"

Her own husband has not had an affair, says Fine, "as far as I know. But nothing surprises me, and if anything came out I would not march to the divorce court. You have to trust your husband totally or you can get really paranoid every time his beeper goes off."

Divorces within the medical community, she notes, happen less frequently than in the general population. She cites 1970 census findings that "white male physicians between the ages of 35 and 45 are half as likely to be divorced as nonmedical men."

"Doctors are largely a conservative bunch," she says. "And after struggling through the rough years, when he's finally earning money, many wives don't want to give it up."

"With my daughter's birth I remember sitting in the back seat of the taxi, water leaking all over me, the contractions coming every five minutes, and feeling lonely and scared. The cabby, trying to be kind, told me, 'Don't worry. We'll be at the hospital pretty soon, and some nice doctor will take care of everything.' I burst into tears because that nice doctor should have been my husband."

"You have to be able to take care of yourself," says Fine, who has no children and will probably remain childless "because we're just not that interested in kids. Doctors' wives have to be pretty self-sufficient -- they're the ones who buy the house and buy the car and are in charge of the children."

Except for the extremes, she says, the time-consuming nature of medicine "can be great for a woman with a career. In medical school, Harry's studying gave me more time for my work."

The book has only one chapter devoted to doctors' husbands, she says, because they are still in the minority. They are usually strong men who don't have the same problems as doctors' wives, and the majority (70 percent of all doctors' husbands) are physicians themselves.

"While proud of their wives' work, most doctors' husbands are more concerned with their own professional accomplishments." They are usually, Fine says, men with "strong egos and enough personal sense of security to allow them to maintain a relationship with an independent and successful woman."

And female doctors, she claims, "are more likely to make sacrifices for their family. They are often channeled into specialties that have less demanding, more regular hours, like pathology and radiology."

Both doctors' husbands and doctors' wives, she says, get a rare glimpse into the jealously protected, mysterious world of medicine.

"Many of us have watched their transformation from little medical student to big doctor," Fine says. "We've seen them cry over their first deaths . . . and we know there's so much that doctors don't know."

Doctors' spouses are aware of something that, she says, "most nonmedical people seem to forget. That doctors are only human."