I stopped in at the hospital the other day to have blood drawn. Just a vial or two, which I had been assured would be no big deal.

I stopped in at the hospital the other day to have blood drawn. Just a vial or two, which I had been assured would be no big deal.

As usual, I was asked a number of questions that began "Are you still?," and as usual, I answered them all in the affirmative: Are you still living at this address? Are you still covered by this insurance? Are you still married to this man?

Having settled all that, I figured I was off to the lab to feel a prick and a sting, but no. More questioning ensued, along with general remarks, which included being given an oversized card on which the person who was dealing with me had written her name: Pam.

"If you complete a survey later and you're asked who helped you at this window, this is my name," she said.

"OK," I said, baffled but compliant. I took the card and stuck it in my book, thinking as I did that it would probably turn into a bookmark anyway.

Next, of course, I was asked if I knew about privacy laws. I said I did - privacy, privacy, privacy; it's all we ever talk about in a world in which true privacy disappeared the moment we first used a credit card or chose a computer password, a screen name, or an e-mail address, but in which we must sign a form authorizing, for instance, one individual pharmacy to release our health information, to correct our health information, to communicate our health information or to revoke our release authorizations, all in the name of protecting a person's privacy.

In fact, I'm not all that clear on privacy laws, but I spared us the agony of review, for which we both were grateful.

It was the next question that rattled me.

"If you were to be admitted to the hospital today " the woman began. I expected her to say "can we share your insurance information?" Or "do you grant us permission to call your family physician?" but she didn't. She said "If you were to be admitted to the hospital today, do you want to have visitors?"

Did I want to have visitors? Listen, I was at the hospital to have a little blood drawn, not to have my tonsils out.

Being a person with a vivid imagination, my range of speculation tends to be all over the map. If one of my daughters is two minutes late when meeting me for lunch, I can have her in a traffic accident, carted off to surgery, going through rehab and never being able to play the violin in the time it takes her to come through the door and find my table, but being asked the visitors question before breakfast on a Monday left me momentarily unable to compose any answer, let alone a coherent one.

"I guess," I finally said, and that was good enough for Pam.

Since then, of course, I've been wondering why that question was so important. If I had been admitted, thanks to, say, a phlebotomist's unsteady hand, I'd want to answer some questions about the food. For example, would I be able to order anything I wanted? Including outside food that my husband - already authorized as still mine - could bring in?

And why stop there? Why not ask if there's anyone I don't want to see? Why not ask how long I'd like these people to stay, or what I'd like them to talk about? "Please, no movie synopses," I'd say.

Do I get to say if I want a volunteer to come around with the magazine cart? Why don't they ask me how I feel about flower arrangements? Would I like them delivered to my room? (Why yes, I would.)

My growing conviction that the world is a strange place and getting stranger was confirmed several days after the hospital incident, when I kept an unrelated doctor's appointment.

The office was extremely busy, as it usually is, and several patients were standing in a room that adjoins the crowded waiting room.

The adjoining room includes the doctor's sign-in window, as well as the door leading back to the examination rooms.

I'd been waiting several minutes when I noticed a woman standing near the sign-in window.

She was holding what appeared to be a cylinder wrapped in a paper towel.

Being a patient of this doctor myself, I knew immediately what the woman was holding. Most doctors' offices have tiny two-way doors in their restrooms so that patients aren't compelled to traipse the length of the waiting room carrying their contribution to the doctor-patient relationship, but not this one.

The woman and I both waited about a quarter hour for the window to be free. When it was, we both stepped up together, and I indicated for her to go ahead and hand over her paper-wrapped object.

She tried, but no one would take it, though the receptionist did go to the trouble of looking around helplessly.

"I was told to come right back here with it," the woman said. The receptionist appeared to be on the point of saying something along the lines of "This isn't my table," but she finally sighed and took the cylinder. The woman and I exchanged looks.

It occurred to me to wonder if this didn't fall into the category of privacy rights. Certainly the woman looked like a person whose privacy had been good and truly violated. But what do I know? As I say, I'm a little fuzzy on the privacy thing.


Margo Bartlett is a ThisWeek staff writer. E-mail her at mbartlett@thisweeknews.com.