Oh It’s Cryin’ Time Again They’re Gonna Squeeze You

You’re almost done at your doctor’s office door when they drop it on you: “And of course you’ll have the yearly mammogram before the end of the month?” chirped my primary care person last April, with the same merry tone as when she orders up the dread colonoscopy.

Oh, I’d  go get the darn mammogram, of course I would – and I know I am lucky to be someone who can show up and fulfill this yearly obligation. Still, we all vividly remember what it’s like, don’t we ladies? The way the tech lifts and nudges those poor delicate tissues onto that cold glass plate? The mechanical squeeeeeze as she brings the second plate down upon them? The way she then tightens that diabolical vise to ‘hammer’ them flat as a couple of veal cutlets?  It’s a never-changing ritual, only this time as I held my breath the way they make you do, the room started to wobble in my sight, causing me to begin my internal mantra of old,  “I will not faint, I will not faint…”

I didn’t faint  but this was the first time in many, many years that I had come so come close. It would be a real bummer if I had, since fainting right in the doctor’s office means forever after they will label you as a ‘faller’ and snap a plastic bracelet on you advertising the fact to everyone in the place. This is the worst. If you have to faint you want to do so anonymously.

In my childhood and teen years I got to do a lot of anonymous fainting: I fainted all the time in church, first going fish-belly white and then melting down in the pew until large male hands heaved me up by the armpits and hustled me up the aisle toward the back of the church, limp feet dragging behind me. I fainted when a doctor unfamiliar with wart removal burned two cigarette holes in my right arm, scars I bear to this day.

I fainted once in the Men’s Department of a fancy store and woke just in time to hear the manager say, “just drag her behind the counter” because you can’t have a lot of passed-out people standing in the way of commerce.

But looking back now I see that the most embarrassing lapse into near-unconsciousness occurred at my own wedding, up on the altar. Cocooned as I was in a complex wedding veil and a peau de soie gown with full-length sleeves that came to a point at the base of the finger bones, I felt my young self mist over with a sudden wash of fine perspiration. Ah, I can see it all before me even now: Here was the priest intoning away. Here were the wedding guests, a sea of blurry balloon faces out their in the congregation. My bridesmaids were there too but I was unaware of them in this moment of need.  The only help I could look to at all came in the person of my similarly young, similarly perspiring groom. We were each facing the priest and not each other so I had to whisper my SOS to him out of the side of my mouth, like a gangster.

“I’m going to faint! I hissed, my eyes on the priest and my face frozen into a death mask of a smile as we stood there holding hands as instructed.

Fake smiling himself, he hissed right back. “You can’t faint!” he said and punched the side of my leg, pretty hard too, under cover of all that silk.

It worked. I didn’t faint, we were officially joined in marriage seven minutes later and have remained joined, basically thigh to thigh, every day ever since.

All of which leads me to wonder if I shouldn’t bring HIM to my next mammogram to help keep me awake and upright. Though as I think about I’m guessing that even one quick look at this whole Inquisition-style process would have out cold and flat on the floor before the tech had time to even duck back behind her screen to start taking pictures.

mammogram

How It’s Done (not me however)

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On the Starship Colonoscopy

colonoscopy fearsSit with any group of 50-somethings long enough and sooner or later the talk will turn to the various strategies for getting through the  colonoscopy prep.This regimen, in case there are small pockets of the population who have not heard, involves the drinking of eight 8-ounce glasses of a thick chalky cocktail, at 15-minute intervals, until the entire 64-ounce pitcher has been drained.

That’s a gallon of gritty sludge, downed within the space of just two hours.

As one who was recently contemplating her own date with destiny, I consulted my 900 stranger-friends on Facebook for advice on how best to approach the ordeal.

“Make the drink as cold as you can!” many said. “Use a straw!” advised a second faction. “Skip the straw and just fire it down!” counseled a third group.

I had used all three techniques by the time I was finished, and let me just say I wasn’t exactly yodeling out a Julia-Child-like “Bon Appetit!” with each glass.

But as unpleasant as the prep is, everything turns rosy when, in your hospital gown and booties, you are escorted into the hospital’s ‘scope suite, where you all at once feel like a guest on board the Starship Enterprise, with the many uniformed crew members circling and circling as they tend and monitor.

You are ushered to a gurney where, alongside 15 or 20 other pre- and post-procedure folk, you stretch out like so many limp strips of bacon.

Someone comes and covers you with a warm blanket.

Then a cheerful medical professional in a pirate-like headscarf comes along to take your vital signs. His hands make a sort of Sign of the Cross as they move from your left arm to your forehead to your chest and then over to your right hand. This is where the needle goes to deliver the I-love-everything drug that cancels all fears. You will then discover another cheery young crew member sitting inches away and peering into a monitor that offers a minute-by-minute account of what’s happening inside you. You feel like the coolest guest at the dinner party. Everyone finds you so interesting!

At last you are wheeled into the operatory for the “periscope up” procedure that has brought you here. A neat slice of time is cut from your life, and the next thing you know you’re back in Mission Control with your fellow strips of bacon.

After a woozy interval, the doctor materializes and, with a somber clergyperson’s air, tells you how things looked. He dematerializes again and you yawn.

Somebody brings you a snack of juice and crackers.

You yawn again and have a little snooze. It’s like being in pre-school again, but without the singing.

In short, it is Heaven and you  have come through. you have been seen, and accepted for who you are. And when you depart, you depart smiling, with a strange but unmistakable sense of blessing, and bits of graham cracker crumb still clinging to your lips.

 

 

Honey, We’re ALL Dying

I’m sick. I might be dying. I think I have scabies, what with these weird little bumps on my skin. But really, it could be anything. Also, my stomach hurts, so I think I have appendicitis. Did I say I was sick? I might be dying.

'First step is the hardest. You've got to admit that you don't have a problem.'
‘First step is the hardest. You’ve got to admit that you don’t have a problem.’

I’m sick. I might be dying. I think I have scabies, what with these weird little bumps on my skin all of a sudden.

But really, it could be anything.

Also, my stomach hurts, so I think I have appendicitis. 

Did I say I was sick? I might be dying.

My head hurts too, so I could be having a stroke, like Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor had that morning she woke up with a killer headache. She’s a neuro-specialist and so knows a WHOLE lot about the brain, yet didn’t she crazily jump on her exercise machine anyway, stopping only when her vision swam and she started to hallucinate – which is something I just know I’d do myself. I would totally try to keep pedaling right through a stroke. Right through a heart attack.

Come to think of it, I sort of did do that on the day I was working away at my keyboard and, out of the blue, got these chest pains, and every single thing I did from then on was dumb:

First I opened up my browser and typed, “Am I having a heart attack?” then moseyed around several sites looking for  answers.

Twenty minutes later, I finally phoned my paramedic son-in-law for advice. The advice came in a small tersely delivered sentence: “Call 911.” 

The person who answered old me that the ambulance was on its way and she would stay on the phone with me until it arrived. She also told me to open the front door and go sit by it.

“I’m hungry though! I need to pack a lunch.”

“Forget lunch,” she said.

“And I have to go to the bathroom!”

“No bathroom,” she said.

“But I HAVE to duck in there! I’ve had like a gallon of water!”

”Take me with you then,“ she sighed.

The next thing I knew, I had been mailed like a letter into the roomy ambulance, in which I lay flat on my back, looking up at the lovely sky, the passing trees.

In the end, I spent five hours at that hospital ER until it was determined that my heart was just fine and all I had likely done was strain the place where my ribs meet my sternum by exercising with some overly heavy weights. Costochondritis they call it.

EKGtime

All of this took place just a year ago, which, it now occurs to me is just about when I began having these health fears. It is only now, as I am setting these words down, that I see the possible reason and the reason is this: While being transported to the hospital, I was delivered straight back to the winter day when my mother was brought from my house to this same hospital, along the very same route, she too flat lying on her back.

Only she couldn’t see the lovely sky, the passing trees, because her own chest pains had claimed her life before the ambulance could even get here.

And doesn’t that connection point to the great truth: When you finally tell a hard thing, and truly feel it again in the telling, you find that it loosens its hold on you. It just does.

So chances are I’m not sick at all, really. And if I’m dying, well aren’t we all dying, carried along as we are on Time’s great conveyor belt – perhaps to glories unimagined, where pain, and even skin rash,  hold no dominion – and isn’t THAT a loft thought for the start of a work week! 🙂

 

 

Here’s a Fun Thing to Try

 

Colonoscopy2imgTestI was closing in on 50 when, at my yearly checkup, my doctor asked that question we all understand to be key these days, about the medical history and cause of death of my two parents.

“My mom: heart attack,” I said “but my dad left before I was born, so I have no clue how he died.”

“Find out,” the doc said. “Do some digging if you have to.”

So, I dug. It took months, but by the time I came back I had my answer. “’Intestinal cancer’ it says on his death certificate.”

“OK, then. You’re overdue for  a colonoscopy.”

“ Hey come on,” I said, going for the joke. “I didn’t even know the guy!”

 He didn’t laugh. “A colonoscopy is indicated for anyone past a certain age either of whose parents had cancer ‘below the bellybutton’. Here are the names of some people who do this procedure. Pick one and get it done.”

So… I picked one, and in a month’s time found myself seated across from a white-haired GI doc for a little facetime. Did I have any questions? he wanted to know.

I did indeed. “My sister has had this procedure and she says it’s super uncomfortable and I should ask for medication, so I wondered: what do you give people?”

“A muscle relaxant of course, as well as a drug called Versed  which acts an amnesiac.”

“An amnesiac?! You want us to forget then, which means it MUST hurt!

“But does it, really?” I asked, hoping against hope.

“Oh, I won’t say I haven’t heard a few good groans over the years,” he answered cheerily. “I mean think about it: You’ve got a five-foot probe and…three right angles.”  

I thought about it; pictured that flexible wand and its seeing-eye fiber-optics. Then I pictured the colon itself, an inverted letter “U” that you explore by ‘driving up’ a squiggly on-ramp.

I went head anyway and booked the procedure.

When the day came the two drugs, administered in painless I-V fashion made me feel fine. Wonderful, in fact.

“Let’s see that five-foot probe!” I gamely sang.

“Here it is!,” the genial doc sang back.

I turned then to look at the monitor – and then somehow a 90 minutes swath was cut from my life. I was lying on my side and it was 8:41; then suddenly I was sitting up and it was 10:11.

I do have a vague memory of turning in protest once, but it seems more dream than memory and, as the saying goes, if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a noise? If a highly ‘personal’ but beneficial experience is visited on you and you don’t remember it, can you call it uncomfortable? Maybe not.

So line up and get it done if you’re at the magical age. The dread snacks you get in the Recovery Room alone are make it all worth while.

colonoscopy fears

 

Necessary Roughness

mammogramWhat can we say of the yearly mammogram? 

The glass plate is cold, they make you stand so close to the machine your ribs bruise, and then they force you to hold these contorted positions and stop breathing for like a million minutes while they set up the shot

And then, of course, there’s the vise.

That victim of  the revenge of Joe Pesci’s character in Scorsese’s  Casino comes to mind.

head in a vise

Your eyeballs don’t pop out like that guy’s did, but it feels like two things further down might pop for sure.

Oh I know, I know, you don’t really get permanently disfigured during a mammogram, and it’s a crucial diagnostic.

It’s just that you go in with two rough approximations of this shape on your chest:

sphere

And two minutes later they look like this:

angelfish

I think I was even leaning over like this guy by the time we got done – and though he appears to be almost smiling,  I sure know I wasn’t!

Say What You Think!

zumba_dancing_and_traningSo I’ll get to the meaning of THIS picture in a second. I was at the office of this bone guy, whose waiting room as I walked in held just one elderly couple. The husband of the pair was filling out his wife’s health history on a clipboard.

 “Knee problems,” he told me cheerily, nodding toward his spouse, who within the space of 30 seconds had thrown back her head, closed her eyes and begun performing an aria of happy snores.

Just as suddenly, she snapped awake and shot me an assessing look.“Nice you clothes,” she told to me in a heavy, Slavic-sounding accent.

I glanced down to see what I was wearing, because you know how it is: you’re not always sure just what you’ve ended up putting on in the morning. “Well, thanks!” I said.

I knew I would miss my visit to the Y that day, so instead of donning my usual crummy workout gear, I had on a forest green boot-length corduroy skirt very wide at the hem and a fur jacket that I have owned since the impenitent, over-the-top 80s when I found it for 60 bucks in an antique store down the road.

“All my life I work in clothes,” she said. “I am knowing good clothes.”

I would have asked more about that, but just then I was called into one of the examination rooms of this new-to-me doctor, who scrutinized my bent toy kite of a spine and asked about my daily life.

I mentioned the Zumba classes I take thrice-weekly at the local Y.

“Zumba?!” he repeated. “Zumba’s all wrong for you. You can’t be sending your thoracic region in one direction and your hips in the other! No more Zumba!”

“No more Zumba? “ I squeaked. “It’s the only thing I do that makes my back pain stop!’

“It’s CAUSING your back pain.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I think so.”

“What happened to ‘Movement is life’?” I said.

“What happened to ‘Listen to your doctor’?” he said.

 We looked at each other for a beat. Then, “Is this our first fight?” I said. “Listen the dancing is mostly salsa, where you keep your chest fairly still and just send your hips out to the right and the left.”

 He shook his head.

 We talked a little more, then he wrote me a prescription for physical therapy and suggested I also see a back surgeon.

 Fat chance I’m having back surgery, I thought to myself.

“He’s a surgeon, you know, and a prominent one,” he said. “He’ll hurry into the room surrounded by younger doctors. Don’t be afraid to slow him down. Make him answer your questions. Stand your ground.”

“I’m thinking that won’t be a problem for you,” he added, smiling.

 I smiled too, thanked him, and after we shook hands I returned to the waiting room, where the woman and her husband still sat in their chairs.

 The woman got right back to work examining me.

 “Good clothes,” she nodded as much to herself as to me.

 I looked down at myself more self-consciously this time, and picked up the end of the dark-green, tan and cream-colored scarf I had thrown around the neck of my jacket.

“The scarf isn’t right though, is it? I tried to find a better scarf but I don’t seem to have one.”

“No,” she said. “Scarf no good. The rest OK. Nice you clothes,” she said again.

 “Happy to meet you!” exclaimed her husband and with that we all bowed to one another and said our farewells – but not before I thought to myself how much I do appreciate frankness, wherever I chance to encounter it.

Racing, but to Where?

Maybe people are just stressing out and that’s why they send along nasty demeaning emails, like the ones I was talking about here on Monday.

Maybe stress is also responsible for the curmudgeonly ways of that crotchety shopkeeper I told about Tuesday.

A documentary dealing with stress and what stress does to our kids was screened in my town the night before last. I couldn’t go see it because I was three towns away getting sweetly peed upon by a naked baby just now learning to sit upright, which is what she was doing, on my lap , while the two of us watched the soapy fun her brother was having in the tub.

Still, I honored the event in my own way yesterday morning, when I looked up the documentary on Google and watched its every trailer and clip, the coverage the New York Times gave it the interview Katie Couric did with Vicki Abeles who made it – everything I could find about it on the Internet in short.

In Race to Nowhere as  director Abeles has chosen to call her film, we get a look at all the must-do’s in our public schools, from the hours of assigned homework to the introduction of  the high stakes testing that came on the scene with the No Child Left Behind program inaugurated by the previous President George W Bush.

A chief point made in the documentary is that the so-called “high ability” kids are so pushed to achieve that many are nearing the breaking point, even as other students, who do not do well on standardized tests, are growing discouraged by their results on these standardized tests and dropping out of school at a much higher rate than in the years before this program was implemented.

Additionally most educators agree that when you merely “teach to the test,” working to prepare students for a single  exam that will be used to label the teachers and the school system AND the students, you drain all spontaneity and creative ferment out of the classroom.

Maybe you’ll agree with the film’s thesis and maybe you won’t but one thing is sure: with adults in this society exhibiting the levels of stress that they do the last thins we need it to be inflicting more stress on our children. As the Mayo Clinic’s website puts it, ““When the stressors of your life are always present, leaving you constantly feeling stressed, tense, nervous or on edge, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The less control you have over potentially stress-inducing events and the more uncertainty they create, the more likely you are to feel stressed. The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including heart disease, sleep problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment…” And that’s just a partial list.

Watch the clip now and see what you think.