Part 07. Devil’s Tower
I’ve never taken good care of myself. I had medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol, but did I use them? Fuck no. I was always so intent on tear-assing out of the house in the morning that I never took any meds.
Hannah Armstrong, my nurse practitioner, got me on the right track. “Medicine won’t work if you don’t take it,” she said, and it was hard to argue with that.
She also thought Xanax might be a good idea for me since I was largely incapable of relaxation and prone to long periods of depression.
“It’s time you have a full physical,” she said during one spring visit. A odd smile curled the corner of her mouth.
Immediately, I panicked. Would this mean I’d have to be naked in front of her? At another time in another life, that would be a wonderful prospect. But not in this “dumb patient” / “medical professional” relationship.
“Get the front desk to book you for a full physical in six months. And between now and then, you’re getting a colonoscopy.” Again the smile. “You’re overdue.”
Oh, God. Would I really have to discuss my ass with this beautiful woman? It was still theoretical and at least six months away, but I was already in the grips of shyness panic. I saw widescreen, Technicolor embarrassment in my future.
Maybe it was time to switch my health-care provider to some liver-spotted old dude. I didn’t want anyone to be poking around in my ass, but if someone had to do it, I guess I’d rather it be a guy — no matter what kind of great listener a woman might be. It wasn’t misogyny; I was just a shy asshole with a lot of hang-ups and insecurities.
Months passed … nearly a year. The daily blood purges began but I kept my health issues secret. I often had to brace myself when I stood up. I’d feel faint and watch spots Macarena in front of my eyes. I’d lean against a wall until the world stopped spinning.
The bladder issue was presented and resolved. The anesthesiologist mentioned the anemia. Nicole began hectoring me about following up, especially about the colonoscopy.
Finally — and almost as if I was watching someone else do it — I dialed the phone and made an appointment with South Shore Gastroenterology, an invitation to allow a stranger to stick his medical instruments up my butt. The first appointment I could get was a month away, so I’d have a long time to fret about it.
The good news was there was always a chance I could die during that month and not have to go through with the colonoscopy.
I trudged along, figuring constant misery and blood and goo would be my lot in life. I did nothing.
Then I finally did.
“I can’t live like this anymore,” I told Nicole and then drove to the office of my primary-care physician.
Hannah was out that day but another one of her colleagues — a nurse practitioner named Alexis Klock — said she could see me.
“What brings you in today?” she asked.
“I was having surgery a couple of weeks ago, bladder surgery. The anesthetist said I was dangerously anemic and that I should come see my primary. So here I am.”
“Have you had any abnormal bleeding lately?”
Now or never; embarrassment be damned.
“I’ve had, uh, had some rectal bleeding?” Adding a question mark made my voice rise a little.
“Some?” Alexis arched her eyebrows. “How long has this been going on?”
I pretended that I had to think about it. “Oh, I don’t know,” I lied. “Couple weeks maybe?” I wrinkled my nose, an approximation of me in deep thought. It had been more like five or six months.
As if shortening the time would make any difference.
“Can you describe it to me?”
I mentioned the fluid, but only some blood. Later, I’d wonder why I’d diminished my description of what had been happening. Would she think me an idiot for not coming in sooner?
Of course she would.
“Okay,” she said, reaching for a glove. “I need to do a rectal exam.”
“Is that really necessary?” I asked. “It can’t be pleasant for you. I mean, look at me.”
At least I got a smile from her. “Don’t worry. It’s my job.”
I bent over the table ashamed, embarrassed and suddenly afraid. Alexis was in and out before I could register a complaint.
I was proud of not spewing my horrid waste over the exam-room floor. I was pleased that she didn’t see me in that position and scream “great mother of break-dancing Jesus!”
She began to speak as if nothing extraordinary had just occurred. Of course, for her there was nothing extraordinary. For me, it was as if I’d crossed over into another dimension.
“There’s definitely something there,” she said, removing her gloves. “A mass. I’ll give you a choice. Do you feel up to diving to the hospital? Or should I call an ambulance?”
“Is it that bad?”
“You need to be checked. They can do tests I can’t do here. I can’t let you just leave and pretend nothing’s wrong.”
She was obviously clued in to my modus operandi. “I can drive,” I said, resigned to my fate. “Will I have to stay overnight?”
“That’s a decision they’ll make in the ER. I’ll call over to South Shore and tell them to expect you.” She looked me in the eye. “If you don’t show up, I’ll hear about it. They may examine you and turn you loose in an hour. Or they may admit you. That’s their call.”
I was admitted to South Shore Hospital that afternoon and several more strange hands were shoved up my ass. I dressed in a back-door-open johnny, settled into a nice, private room and offered up blood and fluids on command.
I called home and told Nicole what was happening, but that she didn’t need to come see me. It was hard to leave our volatile kids — the four of them under one roof — alone.
My nurse, a lovely young woman named Elena, spent a half hour asking me questions and requesting enormous amounts of details on the foul operation of my carcass.
I was in a hospital and people regarded my problems as serious. I was therefore totally straight. There was no fudging of details or down-playing my symptoms. For once, I told the complete truth. Since the hospital had me by the short and curlies, I figured I had to be totally honest.
We discussed the specifics of my bleeding, my dizziness, my aggressively lousy health.
When Elena was done, she went out to the nurse’s station and returned with something that looked like a white plastic colander. This was fine with me, because I love spaghetti.
“I need a stool sample,” she said. “I’m going to insert this under the toilet seat. so that when you go, it goes in this receptacle and not in the toilet. Call me when you have something.”
“Jesus, that sounds horrifying. You sure you want this?”
“We need to see what it is you’ve been dealing with.”
. . . . . . . . . . .
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING
Graphic description of excrement ahead.
Proceed with caution.
. . . . . . . . . . .
I figured I’d suffer performance anxiety, but within a half hour, I was on the toilet.
I did not have one of my hand-sanitizer-and-blood specials and instead produced a dense, orange goo, similar in color and texture to Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup.
I should note here that Bean with Bacon is one of my favorite Campbell products and in those years between marriages I’d spent many mealtimes standing at the kitchen sink, eating it cold from the can. I kept up this practice after remarrying, a guilty pleasure I hid from my family, the way some errant dads hide their booze consumption.
What I produced in the hospital that night reminded me, in shape, of the living-room sculpture of Devil’s Tower constructed by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But this was a mountain constructed from Bean with Bacon soup. It was, in a word, substantial.
I wiped, lifting the befouled colander, and tossed the paper in the bowl below, and flushed. I summoned Elena with the button at my bedside.
“Before you go in there, I must apologize. What I have produced is horrifying and rank and certainly not premeditated. Will you ever forgive me?”
She scoffed. “No worries. This is what I do.”
I thought: she’s much too nice to have to study someone else’s bowel movements as part of her job. But I had to admit, finally, that I was getting worried. What was this “mass” and what did it mean? And what tale would the Devil’s Tower of orange poop tell?