I would finally have something in common with Katie Couric. No, not the $14 million salary or Park Avenue penthouse. Not the size 4 figure or the Christian Louboutins. I would have a colonoscopy. And stay awake. Okay, not on national TV, but in the gastroenterology office.
“None? No anesthesia, nothing?” asked Dr. Kim, the anesthesiologist, eyes wide. “In years, I never see this.” I wanted to say It’s not you, it’s me — my rigid control issues, my hard-nosed tough-girl, I-can-take-it, wimp-averse attitude, me and my strange high tolerance for pain. Most of all, it was my bottom-line desire to be conscious when a man with whom I am only slightly acquainted is about to insert a lubed-up rubber thing into my nether regions.
“I’m just anal that’s all,” I blurted, not thinking.
Those two words, “even death,” listed under “Complications-Rare” on the consent form, didn’t help.
I asked Dr. Grossman, my calm and methodical gastroenterologist, who would soon be gazing deep into my entrails: Did they want to knock me out for reasons of pain, safety, or to guarantee ample relaxation was available in the sphincter region? I was fully prepared to explain that I’d pumped out two 10-pound kids without an epidural, gotten cavities filled with no Novocain, frequently entertained sledgehammer migraines sans meds, and once, after a half-ton horse used my foot for a footstool, I had my big toenail extracted by a first-year intern who left the Lidocain behind.
Instead, I simply said, “I have a rather high tolerance to pain.”
“Without anesthesia, it’s quite uncomfortable,” Dr. Grossman said in his usual patient manner, just like when he said my GI symptoms could mean indigestion, ulcers or cancer and why don’t we just schedule a little procedure? “But it’s perfectly safe to proceed without.”
“Well, I’m sure other people have done it,” I say.
Dr. Groissman nods. He is about 70 years old. “Yes, there have been a few over the years. One or two. We pump in air and the probe moves up pretty far and goes around bends. If you change your mind, Dr. Kim can have you asleep in less than a minute. Because it is uncomfortable.”
I lie on my side while the nurse clamps on a heart monitor, blood oxygen finger clasp, and blood pressure cuff. Twenty-four inches from my eyes is a television monitor. Here, I’ll live out my late-night penchant for reality-TV involving medical mysteries, scalpel-wielding doctors, and flapped-open flesh.
The nurse switches the set on, but says, “You should probably close your eyes.”
And miss the show? No way, nursie.
“Relax,” Dr. Grossman says. I unclench my cool naked glutes, and feel the chilly lubed tube with attached micro-mini camera as it begins its rectilinear journey along the passage to the final resting place of my most recent Indian meal. Soon I am on a fantastic voyage, through a privileged portal most people’s eyes will never peek at, as on the screen before me, I watch the probe travel a path normally trod only in the opposite direction by products which are thankfully not pixally present.
I am vaguely aware that the tunneling trajectory has angled upward and perhaps even sideways, and I notice that the nurse is rhythmically unspooling the looped tubing from its perch which reminds me of my garden hose holder at home, and that I’m starting to get that feeling I get when maybe I ate a few too many of my kids’ string cheese rods. But it’s all certainly well within the realm of only slight uncomfortable-ness; fact is I’d call it only a ripple, a twinge, a funky flutter. I’m more interested in the screen.
“Doc, can you narrate for me?” I ask.
“Are you watching?” Dr. Groissman inquires, a warble in his normally even lilt.
“This is fascinating,” I say as the screen shows a fleshy undulating soft tube lined with spindly writhing reddish pink spidery webs. I’m on a smooth subway excursion, as the camera slithers around bends, illuminating as it goes, a shifting view of mauve specks, maroon spots, and a mélange of what look like intricately constructed blobs, mud puddles and dust bunnies.
I’m alert, awake and aware that I’m getting a look inside my own body, into myself, and I want to know everything. “Can you tell me what all those structures are?” I ask.
“Oh, that,” Dr. Groissman says. “That’s just stray fecal matter that didn’t completely evacuate.”
So I’m watching plops of poop pass by when it occurs to me that I’m, how shall I put it, uncomfortable. But I’m coping, exceedingly well. I’m not a queasy sort.
“There’s the problem,” Dr. Groissman says, pointing to something attached to the lining of my colon, which resembles a bulbous stunted semi-erect penis. It’s swaying slightly and looks a little like what I see when I shine the flashlight into the back of my son’s throat when he’s got strep. The polyp.
When Dr. Groisman says, “We’ll just snip that out on the way back down,” it’s almost like getting the preview to the next episode of Nip/Tuck.
But wait, something is amiss. Not only is something snaking around down there, but it’s leaving concrete-filled balloons in its path. I’m starting to feel as if someone is pumping air deep into my innards, which in fact someone is, as Dr. Grossman so eloquently explained. And I am, how shall I put it? Uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable.
“How are you doing?” Dr. Groissman’s quiet voice asks. I nod, since I can’t chance speaking. He asks Nurse to feel my stomach. She reports, “still soft.”
I’m thinking soft is good, as in relaxed, but soft means not nearly done, and plenty of room for more air. My navel is now so far out in front of me I resemble the woman on the sextuplets show, and from the bottom of my ribcage down I am so rotund and inflated, I think I may combust.
“Still room,” Nurse reports. Another air bong hit.
“How are you doing?” Dr. Groissman asks.
How am I doing? How about engorged? Glutted? Stuffed up like a Thanksgiving Tom? I’m no longer able to watch the TV, and find myself staring at the brass fittings on the door jamb and I suddenly remember my carpenter cousin once told me there is a particular kind of hardware called a butt hinge. My body is growing, groaning and I’m wondering if this is how those guys in the hot dog eating contests feel, and I can’t imagine anything better this minute than to stick a pin directly into the skin of my own abdomen.
“Oh, I’m OK. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s…”
“Uncomfortable?” he asks, this time a little less Marcus Welby and a little more like Dr. House starring in Sweeney Todd.
Dr. Groissman, I decide, needs a major league thesaurus. He needs to know that uncomfortable is not synonymous with excruciating torture, harrowing agony, or crushing misery. Uncomfortable, to me and the folks at Roget’s, means an annoying but tolerable little twinge, a mild but endurable distress, an incommodious but middling irritation. Uncomfortable, for example, does not usually suggest the need for six Motrin, a heating pad, a quick painless death, or Mom.
Had Dr. Groissman noticed my hand gripping the table? Or my squeezed shut eyes? Or my left foot flexed in a way it should only when one is muttering, yes, yes?
“We have more air to pump,” he says. “But you’re one-third through, farther than anyone else has gone without anesthesia.”
I love a well-mannered older gentleman who can lie gracefully. While I am still in semi-control of my thoughts, I realize I may have to turn in my membership card to the Bradley childbirth society, because although I agree that human can withstand unmedicated labor once they understand their bodies are designed to stretch, I doubt even a gecko would lie still if a white-coated human shoved a bamboo rod up its cloaca. The Bradley rulebook is also mute on whether human abdomens are designed to accommodate three basketballs, two grapefruit and the Staples easy button.
“More air please,” Dr. Groissman requests, and when I sneak one final glimpse at the TV screen, I notice only a gooey, glutinous, gross mess. Nurse, remote please.
I search for Dr. Kim, catch his eye. He is close by, as promised. He is smiling, sort of.
“You want now?” he asks.
“Yes, yes,” I cry out, flexing my toes, flailing my hand, and trying to clutch his sleeve or arm. But I aim badly and grab the poor man’s belt, pulling him hard against the table. “I want.”
Three years later, when I need a second colonoscopy, I plan to nod and smile and be quiet when the anesthesiologist gets to work, though I do ask, casually I think, about the type of anesthesia they have planned.
“It’s Propofol, you know, the Michael Jackson drug,” a nurse explains, and while I want to slap her dopey face and explain that this is not at all reassuring to anyone who understands that the King of Pop you know, died while taking that drug, I don’t.
I sign the waiver and smile and nod and extend my arm. I may have a high tolerance to pain, but I apparently don’t do that well with uncomfortable.
— Lisa Romeo
Lisa Romeo writes for magazines, newspapers, journals and essay collections, including The New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, Sweet!, Barnstorm, Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives (Seal Press). One of her humor essays, about posing for photos to accompany her article about gaining back weight, is included in Feed Me: Writers Dish on Food, Eating, Weight and Body Image (Ballantine). She teaches in the Rutgers University Writing Program and lives in Cedar Grove, N.J., with her husband and two sons.