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)
Read more about when things fall apart
Dear Ruth — this is an absolutely beautiful post.
It’s when I’m sick that I realize that I’m truly alone in the world. No matter how much I share about how I feel, my illness is mine alone.
And how this piece brings so much back to me, Ruth. My late husband, Ned, was almost never sick. He was an airline pilot, used to calling his own shots and living his own life on his very own terms. He never complained during his first colon cancer diagnosis and the 6-months of treatment …. but when we went to MDAnderson and found that it had metastasized and the best treatment offered a 17% chance for “success”, he said to me plaintively “I don’t want to be sick.” Sigh. Yes, it all comes back, doesn’t it. Thank you for such insightful writing, Ruth.
What a beautiful post, in so many ways. Thank you.
And enjoy the world of the Healthy. For sure. One of its luxuries and pleasures is forgetting the feeling of the world of the Sick.
Oh, I meant to START with….I am so glad it was nothing to worry about and look forward to hearing from you on trip.
Another beautifully written piece. I found myself breathless at the end and could only go back and reread it. Thanks for this perspective. I look forward to possibly hearing more of your upcoming trip.
What a thoughtful post. Yes, every time I walk out the door of my doctor’s office with a clean bill of health, I see the world anew. The busy streets are wonderful, colorful, full of life, not annoying… for about an hour. Then I ease back into the normal routine of errands, work, family, kvetching, etc. Oh well.
I am 59 now. Mom was 59 when diagnosed with breast cancer. A few years ago, I had to go back for a re-check on a mammogram and wondered what her emotions were at the point the doctor said you have breast cancer. Thank you for sharing your story.
Glad to hear everything is OK. I read something recently that talked about how the idea of “preventive care” makes people feel like failures when they do get sick or injured. I cannot remember the word this writer swapped into the conversation instead of preventive, but I thought the idea, in general, was a careful, less judgmental way to look at our relative health.
I am so with you, Ruth. I do the same thing. I search for any signs on the technician’s or doctor’s faces. I’m always convinced I know what they’re thinking. Nonsense – but not at the time.
I also have to jolt myself from time to time into remembering what a blessing good health is, and never, ever forget that for each healthy day, a silent thank you must be said to whoever is out there listening.
So glad you are healthy.
That is so true, that line between healthy and sick people. Seems like it’s not until you’re in the patient seat that you remember that so many people are facing serious illness.
Well said – I feel you, get you, get it.
I’m glad that you are okay and the ultrasound didn’t find a blot clot or any other problem. Sorry you had to go through it but I’m happy that it inspired this beautiful essay.
Health really is everything, isn’t it? I remember how vibrant my parents were in their early 70’s. And then bad health hit, one illness after another. Their outlook and personalities changed before my eyes. Suddenly, they were old and it was all so sad.
I, too, am happy that you didn’t have a negative diagnosis, but that aside, this is a brilliant essay. Wish I’d thought of it.