Colonoscopy: A four letter word

Opinion

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Tom Holmes

The whiny part of me considers "colonoscopy" to be a four letter word. I had one last Friday at West Suburban Hospital. It's one of those medical procedures at the beginning of which the doctor says, "Now just relax."

Basically, in a colonoscopy they stick a TV camera up through the back door of your digestive system as far as they can. Your GI tract has some curves in it so they blow air into your big intestine-like they do at the gas station to inflate your tires-to enlarge it so as to get the apparatus around the corners.

What makes the procedure special is that your internal sewer has to be completely clear of sewage in order for the TV camera to be able to see what's going on. In order to do that, I could only ingest clear liquids all day on Thursday. I had a glass of Swiss Cream soda for breakfast. I followed that up with a glass of Swiss Cream soda for lunch. And for supper I had. . . .

Then at 3 on Thursday afternoon I swallowed four bisacodyl tablets. I had no idea what they were for. Four hours later I found out. When I have had problems in the past, some of my friends tried to pick up my spirits by saying, "Everything will come out in the end." I'm not sure what happened to me was what they meant, but they certainly were prophetic.

Then at 5 I proceeded to force two liters of HalfLytely down the front door of my digestive system. I choked down the last of seven glasses of the salty tasting stuff at 7. My stomach distended far enough to look like I was four months pregnant.

You might want to remove children from the room at this point if you are reading this aloud. It gets pretty. . . .messy. The good news was that our basement TV had a dramatic, four hour extra inning game on between the Yankees and the Blue Jays. The bad news is that I watched virtually the whole game through the basement bathroom door sitting on the toilet.

Have you ever had to go really bad? Consider having that feeling for four hours straight, and the feeling was not a false alarm. I weighed myself the next morning. I had lost four pounds. I even know the Thai word for what happened to me. It's "tawng sea." I learned how to say that word in Bangkok ten years ago after I had eaten food I bought from a street vendor.

By 10 p.m. I was so hungry that all I could think about was food. After going to sleep, I even dreamed about food. In my dream I was walking through a supper market looking at all of the delicious temptations on the shelves. I kept telling myself not to touch. But then-this was all in my dream-I came upon a lady giving out samples of trail mix and without thinking I ate some. I then realized that I was not supposed to eat anything the day before the procedure, and I felt terribly guilty. When I woke up, I still felt hungry, but also relieved that I hadn't messed up by disobeying the doctors.

Thankfully, my wife drove me to West Suburban. The nurse who had me sign my name seven times on forms asked me, "how are you" when we met. She looked at my face and decided to move on to her questions without waiting for my reply.

When I woke up from the sedative in the recovery room, they told me that they had removed three polyps, so I couldn't have anything to eat for three more hours.

An eleven letter word

The grateful, sensible part of me realizes that colonoscopy is an eleven-letter word and much more.

Dr. Deutsch, who talked to me when I was alert enough to understand, explained that the polyps he and Dr. Guthrie had removed were the kind that often evolves into colon cancer. By reminding my family doctor that I had not had a colonoscopy in five years, what happened in outpatient surgery last Friday might have saved my life. And I thanked God that I had been able to push through my fear of needles and hospitals and have the procedure done.

Mortality is a tricky thing. Our culture, according to some commentators like Ernst Becker who wrote Denial of Death 40 years ago, is just a gigantic attempt to deny that all of us are going to die some day. Everything from plastic surgery to make us look young, constant entertainment to distract us from pondering the fact that we're not going to live forever, to our irrational belief that medical science is going to single-handedly make life better by extending it might be symptoms of our denial and avoidance of facing one of the inevitables of life.

The grateful part of me also wants to say thanks to a nurse named Candace who treated me with respect and care. She even pushed me in a wheelchair to the room where the procedure was done. I'm thankful for a young doctor named Guthrie, who carefully explained the whole procedure to me, and for Dr. Deutsch who patiently answered all my questions before I left the hospital. I feel blessed by medical science which came up with the combination of Demerol and Darvocet which allowed me to sail through the procedure blissfully unaware of what was going on.

And I'm thankful for my wife who chauffered me and supported me through the whole thing. My discomfort brought out the best in several people.

On Monday I presided at a funeral for a man I've known and liked for twenty-three years. He suffered from cancer for a year before dying. I was uncomfortable for a day and a half, and may have dodged going through what killed my friend. If you are anxious about needles and hospitals, do the math. Two old sayings apply. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," and "a stitch in time saves nine."

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