When I was twelve I measured time in two-week increments. Every other Wednesday night my friend Brian and I would have to go to our orthodontist appointment. One of our dad’s always drove us. I renamed the orthodontist “Dr. Tuna Fish Hands” since he apparently had tuna salad for dinner, twice a month, right before we came. It took years for me to ever eat tuna again.
Now, I measure time in annual mammograms. It seems like just when I thought I was in the clear for another year, it’s October again and I am sitting with other anxious women, draped in thin navy blue robes. no deodorant or powder allowed. I feel the same dread every year; I feel nauseous and anxious and scared. If I get cleared I then worry about my mother and my sister.
I woke up at five in the morning, last week, a little early for my 8 am appointment. I couldn’t go back to sleep so I took my dog out for a walk in the early morning darkness. After that, I huddled in Starbucks to drink a very strong cup of coffee for much-needed energy. I then drove to the lab at the medical center and at 7:45 I wrote my name down on the appointment list. Twenty minutes later, they called my name, a couple of other women were called too.
We all had to change and then we sat together in a tiny corner of the room. My neighbor’s foot shook, the woman across from me was sighing heavily, I did both. I couldn’t concentrate on reading even though I brought a book. I seem to do that every year and I never get past the first two sentences. Finally, they called my name to go into the Mammography room. I don’t care about the physical discomfort at all, just the results. I went back to the room and waited for the results. My name was not called. I saw a new batch of women come and go with relieved smiles happily clutching their piece of paper which basically says “No Change, See You In A Year.”
I waited and waited some more. Two more groups of anxious looking women came in and left and I was still sitting there focusing on accepting my fate and concentrating on breathing deeply. Finally, after an hour and a half, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I asked the nurse if I could speak to the radiologist. She rolled her eyes and said “We don’t do it that way, you have to wait.” I had had it by then so I said politely, “I would like to see him, please, for just for a second.” She wasn’t happy; she rolled her eyes up inside her head, sighed and slammed the office door but she did come back to get me a minute later.
The doctor sat leaning back on his chair as if he was sunbathing in Honolulu. I didn’t even have to speak when he offhandedly said “Oh, everything is just fine, it’s exactly like last year’s.” Um, what? I was too stunned to feel relieved but finally mustered up the courage to ask why I had to wait an hour and a half for the news? “You are scheduled for an ultra-sound soon, he droned, so I thought we would wait to see the whole picture.” In a nice tone of voice I said, “I’ve been coming here for fifteen years and the doctor has always seen me in-between the tests and told me the results.” His answer? “NO, we never do it that way.” “Are you kidding me” I wanted to yell? I KNOW they do it like this, I’ve had it done for the past fifteen years.” He shook his head no. Apparently, either the rules changed or he didn’t want to take the extra step. I couldn’t fight the system any longer. I was sent back to wait for my ultra-sound.
The ultra-sound took another forty minutes and I didn’t utter a sound. I understand that even if it feels like they have been over the same spot a thousand times, it is their job to be thorough. I took some more deep breaths even though I lay tilted on the side of the examining table, close to the edge. I felt if I had to move another inch I would land on the floor, breaking ribs and fracturing an ankle or two.
Finally, the ultra-sound was complete. I was sent back to the jolly radiologist, now with a Pina Colada in his hand (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and he said “everything is perfect” and bid me adieu. It had been over two and a half hours, dozens of women had come and gone. I walked to the changing room to retrieve my clothing; I was so tired and spent, it was hard to accept the happiness. As I walked through the bright red exit door sign, I paused and gave my personal thanks for this year’s reprieve and then limped to my car. Time of appointment 8AM, time I left 11:00 AM but I’m not complaining, I can’t. Because between my shaking fingers, I too clutched a piece of paper that said “See you next year.”