Friday, June 24, 2011

A Week Ends, and I Prepare for the Doctor

Don't you hate those weeks--the ones that begin with a call from your doctor's office, the nurse on the other end saying, "Your blood work is in, and doctor wants to talk to you"?  For me, that call came Tuesday, and it's been rather a long week of waiting for the appointment today.

Waiting, with that squirrel cage of questions turning over in my head: but would he call me in to give me good news?  When the last blood test six months ago was so good that he just scrawled "excellent report" on top and mailed it to me?  But then, didn't she say he wants to see me because it's time for my six-month appointment?

And, of course, all of that ruminating over this or that imagined possibility is entirely unproductive, may turn out to be beside the point, and only needlessly tortures the innards.  So that I've worked all week to keep the questions at bay by putting something else into the squirrel cage--the story in the Kansas City diocese, which proves curioser and curioser with each passing day; the baleful circus in Albany, where the human rights of a group of human beings hang in the balance day after day, as a group of morally impaired circus clowns masquerading as arbiters of morality decide whether even to vote on the significance of my human life, etc.

A fun week.  And with the appointment today, the anxiety about one aspect of it, at least, will soon be in the past.  

Speaking of fun medical events that soon recede into the past: I had a long-deferred colonoscopy recently, after my doctor refused to leave me in peace about my decision to defer it for a number of years already.  And, is it me, or has the technique changed since I last had that humiliating and uncomfortable procedure?

Here's what I can recall of the recent scoping: as usual, when I go in for the fun and games, shaking like a leaf with fearful anticipation (and because it's zero degrees in the prep room, and you have to don those skimpy back-ventilated little nightgowns), the nurse takes my blood pressure and it's trending just a tiny bit high.

And as usual, when the nurse tells me that, I want to snap back, "Wouldn't yours be high, too, if you knew someone was about to stick a routing device up your rear end and poke around?"  Instead, I say--again, per usual--"Well, I've always been an anxious patient, and I wonder if the day of fasting and purging may imbalance the electrolytes, and couldn't that scoot the pressure up?"  Which is really, I suspect, my way of saying, "Will you and the other folks here please try to see me and everyone else lying on these cots as human beings--in my case, an aging and frightened one--and treat us accordingly?  We'd be much obliged."

And that seemed to work.  This wasn't the same nurse who quipped, on my last visit to the colonoscopy clinic, "Well, if you don't calm down and stop moving your arms around, we'll just have to strap you down."  Which did nothing at all for the pressure.  Or the pre-op anxiety.  Whereas this nurse's willingness to smile, joke, talk a bit brought it down like a charm--empirical evidence that a tiny bit of milk of human kindness can sometimes turn someone's world around in a heartbeat.  If we only remember to proffer it.

And then the trundling in to the even colder operating theater, where the doctor sits grimly in front of his television screen, needle and ampule already in hand, masked, gloved, gowned.  (I have this odd tendency to notice details more sharply in a state of sheer panic, a tendency Dr. Johnson formulated, I reckon, when he observed that nothing so concentrates a man's mind as the knowledge he'll be hanged in a fortnight.)  And where the nurse with the oddly misplaced Russian name (since she's clearly from the backwoods of Anglo-Celtic north Arkansas) has somehow managed to misplace, as well, her vial of the milk of human kindness that particular morning.

And we're off: three (or was it two?) ampules get injected through the i.v. port they'd already installed in the prep room, and the t.v. screen is alight and buzzing.  And what do I see there--and, oh my God, am I awake?  and watching this procedure?--except a big, gray, hairy ham.  An appalling and totally unappealing big ham.  The kind that has sat out all day after Christmas dinner and has begun to congeal, with a dangerous sheen to it and viscous juices pooling its crevices.

Which is to say, I'm seeing my own posterior splayed on a television monitor for all the world (well, for the doctor and nurse) to see.  And for myself to see, to my utter stupefaction.  And it looks nothing like the big rosy peach the friend of a friend of mine said she was astonished to see under similar circumstances, when she asked the doctor, "What on earth is that big peach on the screen?"

And then we're into the procedure, and I'm still lying there totally awake--or so it seems to me--in a state of mild, chatty euphoria, with my new best friend, Mr. Doctor; I'm lying there watching the thing rout up inside me, watching with subdued interest as he tells me this is a little polyp and he's just removed it, watching the wet gray tunnel (these screens need better color) through which the camera's snaking and the inexplicable bits of scrambled egg (which I hadn't eaten) tumbling along before the camera.  

Talking away: "Oh, did you excise the polyp?"  "No, we use heat."  Then, madly searching for the word I know I know, that has tumbled to the bottom of the well in my head: "You mean you cauterized it."  "Yes."

As if I care.  As if I really want to know.  And to watch.  As if the pre-drugged me--the one I think of as the real me--would want anything more than to be 1000 miles away from this procedure, or, if forced to undergo it, totally sedated and out of it, as my brother tells me he was when he had his last colonoscopy.

Instead, I've morphed into some version of Steve (and have they mixed up our charts, I wonder wildly when I discover I'm awake, so that they've read the notation in his--likes to be mildly sedated and to watch--and thought it applied to me?!), who positively enjoys the illusion that he's supervising the procedure and who begs not to be given a heavy dose of calming drugs.  And I'm propped up on my elbow talking for all the world like chatty Cathy goes to the doctor, as a snaking camera and cauterizing implement make their way up and down the hollows of my inner self.

In retrospect, I realize, of course, that the sense of being totally lucid was not quite right, and that there were long intervals in which my mind, which was in some kind of dream state, had flown the coop.  At the time, though, what a strange sense of being there and watching--and of not being horrified at all at what would under any other circumstance send me around the bend to scrutinize and talk about.

What strange corners our mind still has to turn, on any given day, in any week of our lives.  What strange new chambers of self-knowledge and of learning about the always mysterious, always infinite world outside ourselves: what strange new chambers remain inside ourselves, to be found when we're ready to discover them.

And how odd that a visit to a doctor's office, and the surprising sight of my big, gray ham-posterior, should initiate me into this particular set of mysteries--the discovery that I have the capacity to chit-chat with a doctor probing my insides, to watch the procedure, and to feel nothing at all about any of this except a slight euphoria and a perplexing interest in what would horrify the me I insist on calling normal.

How strange that what we call our selves can be so instantly altered by an ampule of drugs (and who, then, is our self, the one with which we think we're as familiar as we are familiar with the backs of our hands, with the feel of those worn old slippers on our feet?).

I don't know.  I don't know many answers to many questions at all.  What I do know is that the questions remain and will not cease as long as I don't cease.  And they, and not the answers, seem to be the reason for existing.

And this I know, too: when Lent rolls around next year, if I'm there to roll with it, I'll have already done my forty days' time.  On one hot summer morning in a colonoscopy clinic.  Propped on my elbow watching a doctor burn a little bump in the tortuous gray tunnels of my colon, as scrambled eggs I haven't eaten slush around the cracks and crannies of the nethermost reaches of my maw.

The graphic is from PJM's Old Picture of the Day blog.

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