Funny how quickly it all comes back to you.
I am reclining on my back as the technician slowly moves the ultrasound along the vein in my leg. The ultrasound has been hurriedly scheduled to find out why my left foot has been swollen recently.
Since my husband and I are leaving on a long plane trip tomorrow, it would be good to find out whether I have a blood clot in my leg today, my doctor said. I could see his point.
So I’m here, but my mind is spinning backwards. You get ultrasounds on happy occasions (like pregnancy) and you get them to make sure you’re not running out of time (like cancer and the aforementioned blood clot). In Texas, I should add, you’re required to get a transvaginal ultrasound before you can get an abortion; this has nothing to do with my current situation, but it still pisses me off.
Mentally, though, I’ve gone back in time. There’s something about being tested in a medical facility, about being the subject of space-age machines prying secrets out of your body, that never fails to rattle me.
I am whipped back to almost 18 years ago, when a doctor ran an ultrasound over my abdomen to see whether my breast cancer had spread. My own naive belief in myself as a healthy person had already been shattered by my diagnosis. I hardly breathed as the doctor intently looked at the screen, tracing the ultrasound over my skin.
That’s what I hated the most — desperately trying to read another person’s face. I lay there as the minutes passed, certain the doctor was viewing a lethal panorama of metastases. Otherwise, why was she so silent, why was she taking so long?
“What do you see?” I finally asked her. I might as well hear the worst, I figured.
“Oh, nothing,” she said. “But I haven’t had such a clear view of someone’s organs in years!”
Good grief. I was so relieved, I almost vomited.
Today is different — less threatening, but still unsettling. There are two worlds, you see: The Healthy and the Sick. You never realize that until you join the Sick or someone you love does. In that world, you wear hospital gowns that gape in the back, you creep along long, dim corridors, moving from machine to machine. Your insurance card and your pathology report are your ticket to this new world, where people wear white and seafoam green. These people and their machines have taken over ownership and superior knowledge of your body. Or maybe, since your body has already betrayed you, you never knew it as well or really owned it the way you thought you did.
You get released into the world of the Healthy, where it’s bright and normal and people don’t realize how lucky they are not to be sick. But you know you don’t belong there. Other people know it, too; you can see them flinch with pity and a little horror when they see you. Isn’t bad luck contagious?
But again, today is different. The technician sees no clots. I put my street clothes back on and traipse down the dim corridor into the outside world of the Healthy. This is where I belong.
This is where I belong — for the moment. But I am astounded at how completely I have forgotten the world of the Sick, how I’ve banished it from my mind as if it no longer existed.
Don’t you ever learn anything? I ask myself. I mean, not just temporarily — but for good? Are we all doomed to forget?
Around me, the heat is stifling, the traffic impatient. The world of the Healthy moves on relentlessly, lingers for no one, ignores the unpleasant. Maybe that’s the only thing you truly learn and never quite forget once you’ve lived in the world of the Sick: When you’re in the world of the Healthy, your admission is always temporary. Like everyone else, you’re only passing through.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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