Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Another Country

At the risk of oversharing, I had my second ever mammogram this AM. Yes, I've gotten to the age where this is something I'm supposed to do on a semi-regular basis. I've never really thought much about breast cancer, never had much fear of getting it and have probably been less than viligant about the whole issue. Eventually, however, I do generally get around to doing what I should, so this morning, off I went to the "Breast Center" of a Westside hospital.

Of course I was five minutes late (I could say that this was because I couldn't find the doctor's order, which is true, but in all honesty, I am just about always five minutes late to anything in the morning). I apologized to the receptionist at the center, noting that the patient before me had signed in 15 minutes early for her appointment. "Probably how you're supposed to do things, right?" I joked.

"Oh, it's not a problem at all. Some people come in too early. Soon as our doors open, they're waiting. No reason for it."

Per her instructions, I took my seat. The Breast Center was set up with some money, I thought. It's named after a woman - a cancer victim? Survivor? Relative of same? It has nice furniture. Kind of brocade style, a little Laura Ashley or English cottage or something. I sat in a wing-backed chair and started reading my LA Times. Next to me, a trim woman in an interesting black suit with leather piping, spoke into her cell phone: "Well, how much is it? Then I want to buy a thousand shares." And I'm spinning all sorts of scenarios. Is she here for a mammogram? Does she have cancer? Isn't this the kind of overly theatrical irony one finds in some Hollywood film, the high-powered businesswoman doing deals in the waiting room of the Breast Center, soon to be struck down by cancer?

After she completes the call, she rests her head in her hands for a moment. What if it's true, I wonder?

I don't have to wait too long. A volunteer conducts me to the dressing room. We pass the Positive Image Center, basically a gift store with hats and wigs and such for cancer patients. What is it about that same damn hat for women with cancer, you know, the one that's round with a small round brim and a bow at one side? It looks like something that an extremely Orthodox female Jewish settler in the Gaza would wear, to cover her head for God. Not fashion forward.

We pass a series of rooms. A social worker. Financial counseling. Financial counseling! I think, how wrong is this, that in a moment of extreme personal crisis, dealing with your own mortality for crissakes, you have to cope with financial counseling? I think about that damned bankruptcy bill oiling its way through Congress, the one written by and for credit card companies that will make it far more difficult for people to declare bankruptcy. We're encouraging personal responsibility, they say. Well, the majority of bankruptcies in America are triggered by a health crisis. By that shock of fate. One moment, you are fine. The next, you have entered another country, the country of illness. It is not the same as your native land. It is hospital corridors, gurnies in the halls, patients shuffling down them pulling their IV stands. It is odd pastel shades, doctors and nurses and orderlies in scrubs, plastic tubes, the beeping of machinery. It's an old woman sitting in a wheelchair in a hospital gown. A breast cancer patient. "Excuse me," her son says. "She needs someone to take her to the restroom."

In the dressing room, another woman, much younger than I am and accompanied by her mother, wishes me luck. I make some friendly reply. It just hadn't occured to me that I needed any luck. This is just a routine check-up, right? And I think, I should have wished her luck back. At her age, why is she even getting a mammogram, unless there's already some indication of a problem?

I get my mammogram. The process is intrinsically undignified. I mean, you are putting your breast on a plate and squishing it like you're preparing some sort of pannini. But this doesn't really bother me that much. There's an odd sort of humor to it that I can't precisely pinpoint.

The technician is professional, friendly enough if not exactly personable. That's fine too. After she checks the films to make sure they came out okay, she goes to her station and starts preparing the plates for the next patient. "You're all finished here," she says. She does not look at me.

I thank her and leave. And I wonder, did she not look at me because she saw some problem on my films? Was she afraid that if she looked at me, it would show on her face, what she saw?

I make my way through the hospital and out to the parking lot. And by the time I'm back in my car, I've forgotten about it, pretty much. I'm back in my familiar country, the country where I am whole and healthy and need not fear slipping into the abyss...


Anonymous said...

--and yet you are back in the other country when you receive your letter from the clinic--you know--your reasonable self, that is, that if there were bad news your doctor would be calling you. But it's still nice to open the letter and read that all is well.

Other Lisa said...

indeed...I'm rather looking forward to that letter, actually...the other country is a bit too close for comfort.