By Ishmael von Heidrick-Barnes
I could see the light coming and it wasn’t a train in a tunnel. It was the fiber-optic luminescence of my gastroenterologist’s endoscope. I knew it was coming, years before the nurse hooked me up to the IV and flushed a cocktail of saline solution and sedatives into my arteries. I knew it because my maternal grandfather died from colon cancer before medical science had put the fiber into optic and endoscope into my rear end.
The day I turned fifty was the day I became a party pooper. “Happy Birthday” may have decorated the German-chocolate cake. It might as well have spelled out dreaded “C- word:” colonoscopy, squeezed out of a tube in brown letters.
Family and friends acted like it was just another birthday, prompting me to make a wish I knew would not come true. I blew out the candles and sat in my private hell waiting for the doctor’s minuscule beam to snake its way toward my drain pipe.
Birthdays are for young people who haven’t reached the rooftop slide down the gutter into atrophy. I smiled for the cell phone cameras and nodded kindly to the standard birthday banter. Sadly, all I really heard was the steadily growing sound of the blood pressure monitor. I did my best to be happy but the pinch of the pulse oximeter was already biting at my finger.
It was premature but I longed for Versed: the drug company’s magic eraser and a surgical team’s best defense against malpractice. Nothing rubs out short term memories like Versed.
Clearly it was a more long-term memory laxative that I required. Fifty years of life and bad genes (and I’m not talking Levis) awards an old geezer like me with a week of preparation for an underworld even the ancient Greeks couldn’t conceive.
If only the pharmaceutical Land of the Giants had invented a longer lasting, long-term version of Versed. The god Uranus knows the multinational drug companies are experts at altering a few molecules of their best selling elixirs for erectile dysfunction. If the incentive is to avoid the financially deflating effects of classifying a drug as generic, the pharmaceutical industry pumps itself up into action. From where I sat (on the pointed end of a stick) their greedy short-sightedness couldn’t have been more painful.
My annual physical on January 8, 2014, ignited the engines that would lead to my first colonoscopy. My primary care physician handed me 14 pages of instructions to guide me toward my imminent date with gastroenterology (henceforth known as “G-Day”).
The list, revised as of 3/27/13, reminded me of a flight checklist for the Saturn V rocket: the loudest and most powerful device ever built by mankind. I quickly scanned the information on the sheets, hoping to bail out of my doctor’s office before I could incriminate myself.
My first act was to call the gastroenterologist’s office and secure the earliest possible date with his magic wand. After a 30 minute hold with muzak’s version of the James Taylor song, “Fire and Rain” looping through my ears, a receptionist picked up my call. She informed me that the earliest available appointment for my procedure was 6 months away. I tried throwing a little humor into the fire by saying, “You guys must really be backed up down there.” My joke was greeted with an uneasy silence. A date was set but the scheduler’s anal approach to her job did little to settle my fears.
Later that evening I pored over the paperwork like I would later “rock and roll” through a paper of a different kind. I realized colonoscopies do have a lot in common with NASA’s Apollo program: the procedure has several stages with the same goal of landing a man on the moon. Unlike the Space program, colonoscopies took exploration a giant leap further into the final frontier known as space: they not only intended to land a man on my moon, they also wanted to probe its interior. Talk about “going where no man has gone before:” my brain was constipated by anxious thoughts.
Preparation for a colonoscopy begins seven days prior to the procedure. As if physical torment wasn’t enough, I had to drop an outrageous chunk of change on the gallon of delicious solution I would need to drink to get things moving down in my boiler room. It was $100 out of my pocket, plus another 5 bucks for a package of laxatives wrapped in gold foil, like truffles from a European chocolate factory. Don’t count on having your insurance policy cover your back side on this kind of test. I had to get past the pain in my wallet before I could get move on to the pain my posterior would soon be feeling.
One week prior to G-Day, the elimination had begun. A number of foods that make human beings human were evicted from my diet. There was something to lose for every state in this fragile union. Hardly any cultural or ethnic group would go untouched by the draconian dietary measures gastroenterologists have imposed upon humanity in the name of intestinal cleansing.
What can a person eat when he or she is scheduled for a date with the rim-peeper? Clear liquids, black coffee, canned fruits, skinless and seedless veggies, cheese, and white bread. I felt like I was having flashbacks to my Wonder Bread years as a child. A week of white dough turns a stomach into dough. Every day that goes by, the bread rises until you feel possessed by the Pills-Dairy Dough Boy!
Twenty-four hours before your colonoscopy you must adopt a liquid diet. Around five o’clock on the eve of Brown Christmas, the patient must mix two separate chemicals in a plastic jug-like beaker. Each fine powder is benign until mixed together with warm water. After stirring the two formulas together, the patient must swallow the volatile amalgamation in measured increments at 15 minute intervals over the period of one hour.
Your stomach will talk to you like it had a voice of its own. Mine did not sound happy. The roller coaster in my abdomen kept me up most of the night. I had thought that the blasting would begin after I completed the laxatives but, sadly, there was no fruit to show for all my labor. By the time morning came around, I was certain that all my vital organs had been reduced to sludge by chemical decorporation.
Stage Three was a repeat performance of Stage One. The second time is not a charm. The hour-long process of drinking the same concoction in the early morning hours was not easy to swallow. Somehow I swallowed the thick solution along with the reflux I vomited into my mouth. After a half an hour of trying to dilute the formaldehyde aftertaste with water, I was not allowed any further liquids or solids before my procedure.
If you have any dignity, my advice is to leave it at home because you aren’t going to get any at the hospital. The moment you put on the hospital gown and are told to leave the back untied, the whole world can see what’s hanging out the back door.
I was given a warm blanket while I laid on a gurney waiting for a slab to open up in the OR.
As I waited in pre-op staring at the acoustic style ceiling trying to count the holes in the particle board, my whole life passed before me. It seemed like only yesterday I had my wisdom teeth out, and now I had come full circle around the toilet bowl of life. It seems like we go from diapers to Depends in the blink of an eye. Just as I was contemplating the metaphysical nature of my existence, the nurse wheeled me down a hall full of patients packed into curtained partitions like cows on a dairy farm.
The doctor didn’t want to give me too much anesthesia which I personally thought was a good idea. I told him I had been through a sigmoidoscopy before without meds and didn’t find it uncomfortable. We decided if I needed sedation all I had to do was ask for it during the procedure.
Turns out, I had a front row seat to my own colonoscopy. I was laying on my side with a full view of the monitor as the doctor rammed the endoscope up my rectum in search of polyps. It was uncomfortable but not painful; as he looped through my large intestines shooting air and water to keep his windshield view clean from obstruction.
We chatted about poetry, opera, and the NY subway system which never had looked as clean as my colon. Within 15 minutes, Elvis had left the building. I wouldn’t have to be hounded by another colonoscopy for ten years.
I was rolled down the hall to post-op and told by my nurse to let the gas rip. She said I wouldn’t be allowed to go home until she heard my wind instrument tooting. I endured more time in post-op listening to the fugue of old farts all around me than I had spent in the OR.
If you asked me if I’d do it all over again, I’d say, “Yes.” C-Day is not as bad as “the Big C,” cancer, and I’d rather slug my way through a colonoscopy than undergo chemo. Colon cancer is one if the few cancers with a good cure rate, as long as it is caught early. So, fear not the black serpent with the fiber-optic eye. It’s a pain in the ass but, as long as I’ve got an ass, I plan on keeping my back door in good working order.