Meet the doctor as patient.

He, or she, doesn't like it.

Neither do the rest of us. But physicians -- we are now told by physicians themselves -- never quite appreciate how much so, how fearful we are, how uncertain that our doctors are doing the right things, until, surprise, illness one day strikes them too.

Surprise, because "we physicians are in general a hardy lot, and few of us {even} stay home with the flu." Thus, "most doctors know about illness only from their patients and journals and texts. Physicians who say the patient 'has a low pain threshhold' " -- can't stand much pain -- "have probably not had the same disorder that is causing the patient to howl with agony."

"When a doctor gets sick," however, "his status changes . . . He can no longer write orders; orders are written about him, and he is no longer in control of his own situation." :: :: ::

So write Drs. Harvey Mandell and Howard Spiro -- and Dr. William Ober, the author of the last quotation -- in their introductions to "When Doctors Get Sick." This is a wonderfully enlightening new book, a collection of 50 revealing essays by doctors who have been afflicted with serious illnesses. It will be published in October by Plenum Medical (at $25, which does not seem excessive these days for nearly 500 pages of closely packed information).

Mandell, who describes himself as "an obscure New England country doctor," is actually an experienced Norwich, Conn., internist and hospital medical director. Spiro is head of gastroenterology -- stomach and intestinal travail -- at Yale.

Ober is director emeritus of pathology at Hackensack, N.J., Medical Center, and his brief foreword perfectly sums up this book's message for us non-medical readers: It is just as we suspected. Our doctors don't reallly appreciate our problems unless they are afflicted themselves.

Frequently, of course, they truly do. Yet there is often a yawning gap between the support we seek when we're troubled or ill and the responses we get.

We may hope that legions of doctors will read this book to learn from their own kind how sickness feels. Similarly, we can learn from these experts in illness much about handling our own illnesses.

What do they tell us?

They too fear disease and death, and, Spiro writes, "doctors may have that fear more strongly than most and repress it best . . . But it is always there, and illness frees it faster for the doctor than for most."

Mandell tells how he was "bewildered" and "shaken" and full of "dread" when he learned he had a malignant melanoma, a grave skin cancer. Dr. Lewis Dexter, a Boston internist and cardiologist who developed angina when he was 59 tells of his "initial depression and worry": "My life span had once seemed infinite, and now I had to come to grips with the realization that I might die in just a few years or, come to think of it, suddenly, at any time."

When Dr. Robert Seaver, an internist and gastroenterologist, had a heart attack at age 45, he felt the "terrifying certainty of mortality" -- "My terror, shame and guilt were overwhelming. The unthinkable was happening to me. I wondered (as had how many before me?) if the last sight I was to see on earth was the stain on the emergency room ceiling."

When Dr. Denise Bowes, a 36-year-old rural Ontario family doctor, thought she had a brain tumor -- and it turned out to be paralytic Guillain-Barre disease -- she "had all the expected anger about 'why me?'"

So doctors, we learn, fear like the rest of us, a bit of a surprise since we might think they are accustomed to disease in all its forms.

When they first suffer symptoms -- often virtually unmistakable ones -- they often engage in denial and delay. "Most doctors," says Spiro, "postpone as long as possible any idea that they are sick, for most physicians learn to believe themselves invulnerable."

Mandell, told by a pathologist that a lesion on his neck was a cancer, waited a week before consulting a surgeon, and "for the first time I told my wife . . . I guess I couldn't bear to her see me mortal and flawed -- she knew only too well that I was both."

Dr. Lewis Dexter, a heart specialist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School, aware that he had worsening angina, took trips to Bermuda and Europe instead of seeking help and as a result almost died. "I denied too much and tended to look after myself," a "bad, bad thing" for a doctor.

Dr. Hastings Wright, a Yale surgeon, had no doctor when he developed several alarming symptoms, did nothing for three weeks and finally "had to ask a wise and experienced nurse whom to see . . . She had me in a doctor's office in 30 minutes" for a diagnosis of viral infection of the heart.

Dr. Maurice Fox, a Palo Alto internist, at 49 "worked long hours under great stress, sometimes drank too much . . . exercised very little, lived a type A life and was constantly racing the clock." Then "the spiral unwound," the "undeniable symptoms of angina pectoris" -- persistent and intense pain, rawness and distress on walking or stair-climbing. Still, he waited, but: "Ultimately, I had to surrender to my greatest fear," in his case, not of death "but fear of giving myself up to doctors . . . I had to be quite desperate and afraid before I was willing to give up control of my body, my future, myself."

Finally the sick physician gives up control and discards the white coat, "the symbol of power," Spiro writes. Instead, there is the surrender to patienthood, "the hospital gown open at the back," which "teaches more humility even than being on the other end of a proctoscope."

There is worse to come. Most doctor-patients discover what Spiro calls "the alienation of being a patient." He quotes Dr. Oliver Sacks' book, "A Leg to Stand On": "If I rejoiced in the blessing of the sun, I found I was avoided by the non-patients in the gardens -- the students, nurses, visitors . . . I was set apart, we were set apart, we patients in white nightgowns and avoided clearly, though unconsciously, like lepers . . . I realized how I myself, in health, in the past, had shuddered away from patients quite unconsciously, never realizing it for a moment." :: :: ::

Those of us who have been patients have experienced many of these feelings and emotions. It helps a little to know that the men and women closest every day to death and disease have them too.

Next Week: Handling illness with humor -- even some jokes and laughs.