I have raised my children alone for most of their lives, even before my husband died. He was a tugboat captain who was away as much as he was home. I was the homemaker, the disciplinarian, the homework helper, the story reader and, finally, the breadwinner. I didn’t get sniffles, I didn’t take naps. I had my last two babies at home. I was indestructible.
Suddenly, here I was, on the other side. It had been me before assessing patients, asking embarrassing questions, performing humiliating procedures, examining private parts with clinical detachment. But now a nurse asked me in front of my son when my last period was. Another came in while my son and pastor were chatting with me and pleasantly, loudly inquired if I had urinated yet. The neurologist, while surrounded by four or five eager residents, asked me if I had noticed that some of my symptoms had begun as I entered menopause. This was the day after he had gallantly told me I was too old to have MS. “ I haven’t GONE into menopause yet, for Pete’s sake. I am a freak of nature, still fertile at fifty.” The residents cracked up, but he looked irritated, as though I were breaking the etiquette rules of being paralyzed and in a hospital. Levity needed to be checked at the door.
There seemed to be a concerted, and successful, effort to make me feel old, unattractive and nothing more than a mass of body functions. Were they having meetings at night trying to think of the most demeaning treatments and/or questions?
The adorable medical student who was assigned to me was required, as part of his report, to interview me regarding my sexual history. I’m a mature adult, I thought, no problem. First question: Are you sexually active? Ok, so I haven’t had a date in, cough, cough, ok, a while, but I would be if I could be. I assumed being ready, willing and able qualified. The fact that I was not actually having sex with anyone at the moment was, in my opinion, a technicality. These thoughts went through my head so fast they barely registered before I answered, dope that I am. So, yes, I replied nonchalantly, blissfully unprepared for his reaction. “REALLY?!?!” he exclaimed in clear incredulity, if not disgust. He almost fell off his chair. I was mortified. I obviously looked heaps worse than even I thought. Next question: Are you involved with men, women or both? Now it was my turn to be shocked: “Or both”!?!?!?! I suppose I should have been flattered at the implication I could attract both genders when the fact was at this point I could scarcely scrape up one member of the opposite sex. “Oh my God! Men, men! Just men, only men, nothing but men.” It was starting to sound like entire Sixth Fleet, so I stopped short. “Oh my God, but not too many men, not that many.” I was babbling. Next question: how many? Oh crap. I came of age in the late Sixties and early Seventies. This kid is going to think I am a complete pig. So I lied, guessing at what felt like a decorous number for a fat fifty year old. “Four?” I offered. There were no gasps of either shock or pity, so I relaxed a little. Further questions about birth control, childbirth, number of pregnancies, number of children, forced or unwanted sex. Answers: Always careful, natural, 4, 4, no. Lie, truth, truth, truth, lie. No way was I going into any more detail about my life and hard times with this sweet little boy.
I discovered that anyone would have claustrophobia in an MRI coffin. Xanax became my new best friend. But even that was not too much help for the brain MRI where not only are you encased in a 2 foot diameter tube, but you have a cage-like mask snapped in place over your face. And you can’t move. For over an hour.
The neurologist pushed for a lumbar puncture, which I did not want. I agreed tentatively and reluctantly after the promise of heavy-duty sedation. Oh, and a possible diagnosis and, yay, best of all, discharge! “I want to be sedated within an inch of my life”, I told my regular doctor that morning when he stopped in to see me. I love him because he is so good-natured and sympathetic. “ I don’t blame you.” he replied reasonably. However, unbeknownst to me, this slipped through the cracks and nothing extra was ordered.
The obnoxious nurse I had that day came in while I was saying this to my doctor and, without speaking to me or introducing himself, started asking him questions about “she” and “her”, i.e. ME!!! When he paused to take a breath, I firmly stated to him, “SHE would like to be told ahead of time when SHE'S going for HER lumbar puncture.” My doctor chuckled, but the nurse just glared at me and went back to what he had been saying. Twenty minutes later, he came in and said, “Transport is here for your spinal tap.” I said, “But I haven’t had any sedation. And you never told me.” He checked my chart and said, “Well I can give you .5 milligrams of Xanax.”
Considering I wanted to be at a point where they could tell me they were going to remove cerebrospinal fluid through my eyeballs and I would say okey dokey, .5 milligrams of Xanax was not going to even begin to cut it. And I told him so. He started huffing and puffing. I was obviously very inconvenient and annoying. “I would have to call your doctor for something more.” “Knock yourself out then”, I replied with all the dignity and indignation I could muster while wearing blue gingham pajamas. He trumped me though, not just by being fully dressed, but also by spitefully canceling the crucial test I already didn’t want. That’s when I had my melt down, getting on the phone to the nursing supervisor and starting to pack. Within five minutes I had five doctors and three nurses in my room, with soothing, psychiatric, talking-someone-off-the-ledge voices, offering me massive doses of Valium. They had me at 10 milligrams.
A lumbar puncture is a diagnostic test that withdraws spinal fluid by sticking a large gauge needle directly into the space right around your spinal cord. YOUR SPINAL CORD! If that wouldn’t freak you out you would have to be a stone and of course would have no spinal cord so you would have no reason to be upset. Mine was to be done guided by x-ray. I assumed that was because I was fat, which only added to my distress, but later found that because it was more precise with x-ray guidance, the sample was better diagnostically. Silly me. Afterwards, my regular doctor acknowledged he had never experienced one and asked me how it had gone. I was chastened to admit that despite my fear and general carry on, it had not been that painful, just merely awful. To feel the searing burn of the anesthetic, the pressure and almost audible pop of the insertion and the shocks as nerves are stimulated is beyond unpleasant, even while stuffed to the gills with Valium.
Next: So what's wrong with me, besides the obvious?!?!