You Call This a Medical Test?

November 22, 2011 at 1:50 pm (Uncategorized)

I got a mammogram yesterday. I had prepared myself for half-a day’s worth of painful stretching and boob smashing. After all the horror stories I’ve heard, I expected the test to be traumatic and deeply painful. I’m not unfamiliar with invasive or degrading medical tests, so I thought I had a sense of what I was in for.

I’m pretty sure all those mammogram horror stories didn’t come from people in Chronic Town.

The test took 15 minutes. It didn’t involve an IV or drinking half a gallon of barium. Or anesthesia (either local or general). Or very long needles. Or being hung upside down. Or flapping hand weights about with a catheter snaked from groin to heart. Or the prospect of technician-induced fatal heart arrhythmias.

Here’s what I had to do instead. First, since mammograms are part of our local hospital’s new—and I’m guessing potentially hugely lucrative— “Breast Care Center,” I got to bypass the riffraff in the main radiology waiting room when I showed up for my appointment. I wanted to dance a little jig when I wasn’t shown to one of the 7 couches where it feels like I’ve spent approximately one-third of my adult life waiting for CT scans, MRIs, X-rays, pulmonary function tests, echocardiograms, Holter monitor hook-ups, and such forth.

I managed not to crow, “See you suckers,” as I was whisked into the mammogram-only waiting room, decorated in seven shades of pink. Before my butt had even made contact with a chair, a friendly woman came out, shook my hand, and smiled at me. The whole eye-contact, smile thing caught me off guard. It’s not what I expect at our local hospital. With an even bigger smile, the technician took me to a private dressing room. I didn’t need to cram my clothes and bag into a locker the size of a shoebox. Better yet, in my private dressing room were 2 pink-wrapped chocolates—for me. I stuffed them in my mouth, quickly, in case I lost my chance to get them later.

I donned a stylish pink mini-cape, and the smiling tech walked with me to the mammogram machine. It hulked in the middle of the room, large enough to cast a shadow. I told the tech that I’ve got a defibrillator above one breast, and a port above the other. And get this, she kept smiling. She didn’t sigh over such a problem patient. She took a total of 4 images. For each of them, she plopped my breast on a screen, had me lean at interesting angles, smashed down on my breast, and told me to hold my breath for a few seconds. While the machine re-set between images, we chatted about Thanksgiving and whether it’s more fun to have a quiet family dinner or a loud, big gathering. After the four images, she asked for me to raise my arm. I did so, thinking we were moving on to the next—horrible and traumatic—portion of the mammogram. Instead, she snipped off my plastic, hospital bracelet.

“You mean, we’re done?” I asked.

I must have sounded odd because she gave me a funny look before reassuring me that yes, my mammogram was complete.

As I walked out of the hospital into the starched, frigid air of our early winter, a whole 15 minutes after I’d walked in, I felt exhilarated, lucky, and inwardly boisterous—akin to how I imagine it would feel to win a small payout from the lottery.

Let me be clear. I’m not trying to be snarky or suggest that anyone who’s had a hard time with a mammogram is a big wuss. The boob smashing wasn’t something I enjoyed. And if the tech had been rougher or poorly trained, if I had issues about medical personnel touching my body, if I had truly taken a close look at how disturbing a breast looks all mushed out on a screen (instead of just optimistically squinting past the great spread of white flesh), I wouldn’t have emerged from the hospital with a spring in my step.

I have said many times before, and I will say it again now. There is no hierarchy of pain. I really believe this. My point in bringing up all my horrific medical tests I’ve endured in the past seven years in Chronic Town isn’t to assert that I’ve had it worse, suffered more, and therefore have a license to whine and complain. (I do a good job of whining and complaining without any special victimhood status, thank you very much.)

The reason I’m writing this is because I found the almost warm and fuzzy feelings I had after my mammogram an interesting juxtaposition to the horror stories I’d heard beforehand. Would I have been so enchanted with a couple mediocre chocolate squares and several minutes spent converting my breasts to human pancakes if I hadn’t spent seven years being subjected to myriad de-humanizing and frightening procedures? Probably not. I am the product of my environment. Drop anyone into many months of getting poked, biopsied, catheterized, spun, sweated, and probed and their perspective will change. Think of it another way. The year before Andrew was born, Jay worked for the first time in private legal practice. He routinely put in 80 hour work weeks. So, when he opted for a government job next, he was pleasantly surprised to be returned to a 40-hour work week. He found it almost relaxing.

So much of who we are is perspective. The angle from which we approach a situation or the lens we use to view our life defines our reality. For me, on this unseasonably cold day, I felt like 15 minutes of mammography was manageable. I’ve been shaped and seasoned by Chronic Town. Plus, I’m a sucker for chocolate.

9 Comments

  1. Elena Aitken said,

    Ahh…perspective. I love that…you’re so right, so much of who we are is perspective.

    I for one think it’s fantastic that you had such a great experience. I’ve only ever had one mammogram and it was while I still nursing the twins. Needless to say…not so good.
    But maybe if there had been chocolate…

  2. Rebecca Stanfel said,

    It was pleasant surprise to have such an easy and nice experience at the hospital– in Chronic Town. But I cannot imagine how you got through that when you were nursing. That must have been torture.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  3. Rayna said,

    Hooray for a positive experience in the hospital! It’s amazing how much a smile and professional courtesy can affect us.
    I’ve never had a mammogram, but when I do, I hope I get a chocolate 🙂

    Lots of love!
    -Rayna

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks, Rayna,

      You got it. A smile and doing your job well can make all the difference. I wish they trained this a little more in medical/nursing/tech schools. But, I’ll take my good day.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      love,
      rebecca

  4. patriciasands said,

    I just had my routine mammo yesterday. I’ll have to pass on the suggestion of pink-wrapped chocolate. Great idea!

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Thanks for commenting.

      I hope your experience was a good one, even though there were no chocolates.

      rebecca

  5. Randy Bekkedahl said,

    Perspective is all. Like you, I’ve been poked, prodded, stabbed with long needles, etc. and once, when I had some neurolgical probolems, the neurologist ran a test where he sticks needles into my leg and runs electricity through them to see how the nerves react. When he finished, I shook his hand and said thank you, which took him by surprise and all he could say was “that’s not the usual reaction I get.” Which took me by surprise, and I left wondering about his comment and decided most patients he sees aren’t used to pain on a daily basis like I am, and that my brain had adjusted to the constant barrage of nerves screaming “ouch, I hurt!” So, my reaction to the needles was less than he normally got.

    Thanks again for posting, I appreciate and enjoy them.

    Randy Bekkedahl

    • Rebecca Stanfel said,

      Hi Randy,

      Ah, the lovely EMG test. I’ve had that one, at least once.

      What you said about being nice to the tech got me thinking. I flagged the problem of unfriendly techs in this post. But equally important to the equation is a friendly patient. As I’m sure you’ve noticed because you spend a lot of time in hospitals too, there are plenty of patients who are unpleasant, quick to be offended, and who don’t censor themselves from saying an assortment of nasty comments to nurses and techs.

      And I think you’re absolutely right about how chronic pain can help you get through situations that others would find difficult. It’s amazing how much easier it is for me to deal with minor pain since I had three years of constant, extraordinary pain.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving,
      Rebecca

  6. Paul said,

    It is stranger, perhaps, that most medical staff don’t get it that the simple things like a smile, a piece of chocolate, and some respect make such a BIG difference.

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