Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell

SIX
Testing, Testing …

 [p.20]Recently I spent part of a day in the hospital for minor surgery. Actually, even the word “minor” is a bit exaggerated for what I had done. I am now convinced that the doctor could have taken care of everything quite nicely in his office waiting room, or maybe in the front seat of my car, with the engine idling. Nevertheless, it was an experience.

First of all, to make sure it wasn’t too much of an experience, I extracted a promise from the doctor—that I would not be subjected to afterburn.  “Afterburn” is the principle whereby you spend four hours, for example, cleaning up the mess your kids made preparing a Mother’s Day breakfast which you ate in seven minutes. Afterburn is what can make a week-end vacation a week-long misery, if you have mountains of laundry, two cases of second-degree sunburn, one case of poison ivy, one cold and four over-extended credit cards to cope with after the vacation.

Well, bearing that in mind, I made the M.D. swear there wouldn’t be any ritual shaving in preparation for my little encounter with the knife. I wasn’t about to undergo a fifteen-minute operation followed by six weeks of rash, itching, and [p.21]general petits miseres which have nothing “petit” about them.

“After all,” I told the doctor, “if you were going to remove a man’s tonsils, you wouldn’t shave his moustache, would you?”

We negotiated, and he agreed. I thought I was safe, but I was wrong. I had forgotten the tests.

After the initial arrangements are made, patients don’t get to just go home and gnaw their nails until the big day. No siree! They have to have Tests. Modern American medicine is founded on Tests. It’s the medical profession’s way of carrying on the tradition of multiple choice from school days, only now they play the game by giving tests, instead of taking them. But the object seems about the same.

And if you haven’t played Tests recently, you’re in for a surprise. Between them, the M.D.’s and the technologists (hereafter known as They) have come up with tests that are rare feats of the imagination. For example, they have one test whereby they can take a picture of your innards without using X-ray or fluoroscope. I think it’s done with sound waves, and they use it frequently to check the condition of the unborn child in pregnant women. One problem with this gadget is that sometimes the patient’s bladder gets in the way of what they really want to see. So to get the bladder up and out of the line of fire, they force you to drink several drums of water. Now you may think you ordinarily drink a lot. But whatever you customarily drink is just a piddling amount compared with what these technicians are determined to get down you.

Then, when they have filled you up to the proper level, they strip you naked, toss you a wisp of a gown as a nod in modesty’s direction, and shuffle you out into a public corridor to wait. There you are, five or ten of you, with bare bums held by the force of suction in uncomfortable scoop-bottomed chairs, all pretending to be engrossed in “The Days of Our Lives,” which is blaring forth from its perch near the ceiling. Meanwhile, the days of your own life are going by all too slowly, and you soon have the feeling that your very lungs are afloat. In half an hour or so, you are called into the dark sanctorum to have your abdomen scanned with a little implement attached to a huge machine that looks more like a metal detector than a medical instrument.

Slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y, the two women operating the machine sound your depths, taking their time, with occasional breaks to [p.22]consult each other about what the cafeteria may be offering for lunch that day. When at last you are finished, you’re still not finished. Relief is not yet at hand. The technicians have to take the computer printout to the radiologist, to see if all went well, or whether Take Two is necessary. So you sit some more, your legs crossed in at least three places. At last, tests verified, you are ushered to a little restroom that by this time has assumed the aura of Valhalla.

There’s another test you’ll want to check into some day. This one takes about twelve hours, all told. It begins the night before, when you stop eating or drinking. “No gum, no Lifesavers, no diet drinks, nothing,” their advance woman spells out on the phone. You ask if it’s okay to swallow.

Next morning at 8:00, at the lab, they want to draw your blood. Now, my family physician used to have a nurse called Gondola, or Granola, or some exotic name. Whatever her name, she could zero in on a vein in my arm, shoot the needle in, draw blood, and be back at the desk yelling at the insurance company on the phone in one revolution of the second hand on the old wall clock. I mean it. Since her retirement, subsequent nurses have acted as if I were deliberately hiding my veins on them. I will spare you what I have gone through trying to give them a small sample of blood. I swear I’m going to have the place tattooed, with a caption reading, “Siphon here.”

Anyway, at 8:00 a.m., a tall skinny boy plays hide-and-seek for a while, finds the vein, and draws blood. Then he gives me something to drink, three ounces of a liquid that causes my toes to clench. He gives me another 3-ounce cup and asks for a urine sample. I will also spare you the instructions printed on a sign in the bathroom telling you how to get the sample. All I can say is that it does not seem like an operation for a person with only two hands.

Emerging moderately successful, I place the tiny, damp cup on a counter, where unseen hands later whisk it away for analysis.  That’s all there is to this test, except that these steps are repeated four times—every hour on the hour. I sleep in the car in the parking lot some of the time, read some of the time. Each time I re-enter the hospital lab, a different young person is  there to bleed me. Perhaps it is also a test for them. Perhaps they are drawing straws behind the counter. Who knows? Maybe it’s their way of relieving the monotony for me. By noon I have [p.23]spent longer at this than I will spend in the hospital on the day of the operation.

On that day, incidentally, I am told to bring a “specimen.”  That’s the euphemism so universally accepted that you are never told a specimen of what. Now a great many women bringing in specimens seem to have a pantry full of empty baby-food jars, just the right size. Not me. I searched and searched for something, but all I could find was a quart canning jar. (That is, if you discount some smaller vases; somehow, I really didn’t think they’d appreciate my depositing a bud vase on their counter.)  When I gave the nurse the bottle as I checked in, she looked at it, about 4/5 full, and said drily, “We only need a small specimen.  Just what did you think we were going to do with it, anyway?”

Before very long, I am wheeled in a bed to a holding area.  This is it! The real thing! Doctors, nurses, orderlies, aides-they are all coming and going. I strain my ears. I keep my eyes alert.  After all, I’m no green kid. I know what goes on in places like this. I watch “General Hospital” and “St. Elsewhere” and “Trapper John” reruns and all the rest. Why, I can go back a lot farther than that—I remember “Joyce Jordan, M.D.” and “Young Dr. Malone” on radio. I know the passion that seethes beneath those crisp white uniforms. I know of the triangles, the trysts, the temptations.

That is when the great revelation comes. I listen and I eavesdrop.  And do you know what? It’s not “General Hospital” It’s Safeway. So help me. Everybody is talking about when they are going to take their break, and who will take the afternoon shift for whom three weeks from yesterday. I’m in the holding tank or whatever for about an hour, before and after, and that is all I hear, word of honor. Of course, the doctor is not talking about his break. He is talking about his vacation, which apparently begins as soon as I come out of the anesthetic and can tell him how many thumbs he has on his right hand.

I am home by one o’clock, just in time to see if they’ve discovered a cure for Diana’s amnesia, and if Brad has found out that his baby is not really dead. I notice that they are sending Joe in for some tests. Well, that takes care of him until Christmas!