White walls; clinical.
The sound of muted conversation echoes down the corridor: the only evidence that life outside is still ongoing. The smell of disinfectant hangs in the air like a gentle mist.
Four plain walls, no decoration: just a clock on the wall, a TV and two plastic jugs of water that I’m not allowed to touch. There are about ten of us present, all politely waiting for our turn. In the front left corner is the door to freedom, in the front right the TV, unloved and unwanted, shows endless athletics. The emergency exit sits in the back right of the room, shrouded by blinds and making the sense of isolation complete.
The clock sits dead still at 10:45am. I’ve already handed my watch and keys to my partner and feel very lost in this timeless environment. I put my head back on the white wall and try to sleep. My partner is busy making friends with the old lady next to her: she’s good at this human interaction stuff – I’m really not. I listen to her voice and let it comfort me, glad that she is there.
I ask for the time: it’s already 2pm. I haven’t eaten or drank since 5am and I’ve been here, along with everyone else, since 12:30pm. Hardly anyone has been seen yet.
As a defence mechanism I start making stupid jokes: I talk about the athletics on the TV: how did the triple jump evolve, I wonder – I mean a hop YES, a skip, MAYBE, a jump DEFINITELY, but all three? What happens if you forget to skip? Do they knock off points or is it disqualification? I talk about my suggestion for the 2012 Olympics – that we should suggest Olympic Musical Chairs as an additional event. A part of me really wants to see the teams walk into the half-finished arena waving the flags whilst a presenter says “And here comes the British Olympic Musical Chairs team in the middle of the pack: they’ve had a lot of problems with funding over the past two years, most of them have been practicing with a bucket: so I wonder how quickly they’ll adapt to the Olympic Standard Chair” and suggest that, in keeping with childhood parties, the songs should all be by The Muppets or “Remember You’re A Womble”
I shut up, aware that I’m babbling. A gaunt man with scraggly stubble and a blue overall calls my name and I walk through. He tells me the same things I’ve already been told five times, asks me the same questions. Do I have any loose fillings? No, Do I have any history of heart disease, Diabetes or any other Non-Fun Diseases (NFDs)? Again – No.
He explains that they are going to perform an Endoscopy – send a tube down my throat and have a good nose to see what’s going on in my stomach. He also says they’re going to do a biopsy whilst they’re in there: take some samples from my stomach lining to check on my food allergy. He seems to be the first person I’ve spoken to today who knows that this is why I’m here – but I don’t mind too much as he’s the one doing it.
You see: ever since I was very, very young I’ve had a food allergy: I’m on a special diet so most of the time I don’t have a problem, but just recently the Doctor’s keep saying that I really should have another check for the NFDs that I’m apparently more prone to than the average person. Amongst the NFDs they say I could look forward to are such fun illnesses as Stomach Cancer, brittle bones, Diabetes and an increased likelihood to get Flu. Eventually I got sick and tired of hearing it and, foolishly, agreed to let them have a look – if only to shut them up for a while.
Personally I just think they have a quota each year and if they don’t ram something inside you from time to time they lose their funding. This conclusion has been reached because no one will tell me exactly how much more likely I am to get these NFDs. Is it one percent? Five? Fifty-five? How can I decide if not being probed every five to ten years is an acceptable risk if no one will tell me?
Eventually the man in the blue coat finishes his spiel and sends me packing. It’s not until much later that I think how funny it would have been to ask him if I will be able to sing after the procedure, so that when he says “yes” I can respond “Well that will be a bloody miracle, because I can’t sing now!”
They call my name again and this time there’s no escape – I go through to a small cubicle and undress, struggling to do up the gown at the back and the sides, placing my belongings into a hand basket that looks suspiciously like it’s been stolen from Tesco. As I don’t have any slippers they tell me to leave my trainers on: the last thing they need is me slipping over and breaking my neck! After a while a Chinese nurse comes to collect me, asks me to confirm who I am. I look at the tab of white around my wrist and wonder what the point of this is when I could read the information from here.
I go through to the procedure room and again I’m making stupid jokes. I do this when I’m nervous or bored or…well, almost any time really, but especially when nervous or bored. I ask one of the nurses if she ever wakes up and thinks “oh no, not another stomach: let’s shove it up his nose and look at his brains for a change?” but she doesn’t look amused. She looks like she’s spent too much time riding horses on Daddy’s vineyard and replies in a nice tone of voice that nonetheless tells me I am little more than a sack of meat as far as she is concerned.
The Endoscopist shows me the spray they will use on my throat and warns me that it will taste awful: a bit like rancid bananas. I suggest that they should produce a range of foul tastes for variety: peach melba perhaps, but open my mouth nonetheless. It is exactly like rancid bananas: only it stings as well.
They lie me down on one side, having to undo the gown around the neck because it is choking, and put a stopper between my teeth to keep my mouth open. The Endoscopist explains that this is the worst part, as when the scope goes over the back of the throat it can cause gagging. A convoluted discussion ensues as to whether I will need oxygen or not: the Endoscopist laughs off the suggestion of my air passages being partially blocked, but the nurse seems to win the argument as a small tube is pressed into my nose.
He asks me to swallow: and I realise in an instant that he is totally wrong – over the throat is easy: the feeling as the instrument descends down my neck, pressing against my windpipe, and into my gut is far worse: like swallowing a sword or a snake. I feel his thin tube pushing down through my mouth, down my throat, penetrating my body. I want it gone, now: but lie still. The pulse-monitor on my finger slips and I wonder if it is possible to find a comfortable position where I will not dislodge it.
My whole world now consists entirely of the sight of his hands adjusting the controls, the blue of the nurse’s uniforms and the steady ping-ping-ping of the monitors reminding me of the control panels on Star Trek. I try to breathe steadily and not think too much about what he is doing, but I can still feel the pressure in my throat and silently urge him to stop telling me what he is doing and just get the hell on with it.
He pushes a thin metal wire into a section of the tube and I feel a tug as he pulls out a section of my stomach wall: once, twice: four or five times in total – each time it’s like being pinched inside and then pulled quite hard. I try not to swallow too often, aware of the tube pressing against me from inside.
Finally, after what feels like a lifetime, he announces that he is pleased and begins to remove the scope and I feel it wriggling worm-like; slouching towards bethelehem so to speak...
Someone raises the sides of the bed and asks me to turn on my back. They ask me to sit and immediately my head starts to spin. Every time I swallow my throat complains.
I tell them that I can’t stand just yet and the Chinese nurse that led me through piles my Tesco shopping basket on the bed and pushes me through to a recovery room where she takes my blood pressure and my pulse. I feel bad for being such a pain and such a wuss: silently confirming to myself that the old lady before me probably got straight back up, did a little dance and swung her handbag at the Endoscopist in revenge. I apologise to the Chinese nurse for wasting her time and thank her for being a lovely audience.
Finally they allow me to stand and get dressed, before offering to let me look at the notes to see that everything is fine. I walk over, expecting to see a scan of my stomach, but there is only a drawing of a stomach with nothing much written on it. I wonder what this is supposed to prove: that the nurses are better artists than I am?
I thank them for their help and for looking after me and walk back to where my partner is waiting for me. I’m almost pathetically glad to see her, to know that she has been waiting for me, thinking about me whilst I was in there: thinking that words will never express how much that means to me.
As we leave the building I find myself thinking that modern medicine may well be wonderful, but that I’ve had just about enough of it for now thank you very much.