A trip to the ophthalmologist’s office for a glaucoma checkup seemed an ordinary way to begin my Friday morning before heading off to class.
A quick vision check ensued before plopping my chin onto the plastic shelf on the edge of a white sphere. I’m told to stare at a little white light and click whenever I see another light briefly blink within my peripheral vision. I find this test annoying, not just because it seems to go on and on forever, but also because some of the lights, as confirmed by the technician, are very faint, making me wonder if I really saw them. I try not to blink too much, afraid I will miss a blinking light and make the doctor think my mild glaucoma is worse than I hope it really is.
When Dr. B enters the room, I sit propped on a chair surrounded by optical equipment. He approaches to shake my hand saying, “Good to see you.” Then, with my test results in hand, he says, “We need to get an MRI of your brain.” Stunned, I feel a chill go through my chest, then down into my stomach.
All I can say is, “Why?”
“To eliminate the possibility of a tumor on the pituitary gland,” he says. He shows me the printout from the peripheral vision test. It is distinctly distorted with a razor sharp edge at the middle of the chart without black or dark gray above but lots of black and gray below the line. He does not explain the graph, but it looks odd to me that there is nothing above the midline of the circle. He informs me he is obliged to run the test to be sure there is not a tumor pressing on the eye nerve.
Now my head starts spinning inside. Knowing the pituitary is near the brain I ask, “Is that a brain tumor?”
“Yes.” He says that it probably is not a tumor, but we have to make sure. I assume he would say that in any case just to allay my fears until we know the truth. I am told that the assistant will arrange my MRI appointment and he will call to let me know the results. The doctor slips off to the next patient.
I leave the doctor’s office, call my husband to tell him that I am freaking out. He tries to hide his concern behind words about the MRI giving us more information, blah, blah, blah. I know he is trying to reassure me and keep me calm, but all I can think of is brain tumor and the people I have known die of them. The horror stories fill my head.
The terrible news the night before, that my sister-in-law is not expected to recover from her stroke comes back to me, making me wonder if my husband and his brother might make widower status the same year.
I go to my Civil War class wondering if it is advisable to listen to a lecture about tragic events at this moment, but decide it will be a good distraction. I slip into a seat and then find my phone is searching for symptoms and treatments for pituitary tumors in the two minutes before class begins.
After class, I rush home for my appointment with my financial advisor. Ironically, we had planned to apply for a long-term care policy discussed two days earlier. How life changes in an instant.
After deciding to wait until the MRI shows negative results before applying for long-term-care-protection, I head off to Hospice to do my volunteer work. Grateful they need folders assembled this day instead of making bereavement calls, I collate pages on different pain medications and wonder if I will soon be prescribed any of these meds.
On the way home I stop to give blood for the test Dr. B has ordered. As I watch my blood fill the tube, I wonder what secrets it will send to the doctor.
The next morning upon opening the newspaper, a furniture ad falls out. I wonder if I might need one of those recliners in the near future, as recollections of hospice patients propped up in them pass through my mind.
I finally get back to researching pituitary tumors on the Internet. One resource says they are not brain tumors, even though the pituitary gland is tucked against the brain behind the nose. When malignant, they usually are not the spreading type. I read they will not shave my head if I have surgery, as they usually operate through the nose. I feel some relief that my skull will probably not be sawn open. The widespread range of parts of the body affected by the pituitary gland makes it clear its removal affects copious functions. Trying to tell myself that a tumor may not be tucked away in my head, I keep remembering how distinct the graph of my peripheral vision was and have a hard time believing glaucoma was the cause.
Throughout these first twenty-four hours I keep thinking about my two-year-old grandson and how close we are now. I had hoped I would live long enough for him and my granddaughters to be able to remember our bond when they grow up and I am gone. It has always been a goal of mine to be loved as a grandparent like my beloved Gramma and Grandpa were. I hope this is not thwarted by a growth on a pea sized gland.
Unsure I will be able to hold still for the hour and a half they tell me the MRI on my brain will last, I skip using my inhaler to lessen the coughing from my chronic lung condition. Zinc lozenges coat my throat up to the last minute, as I try to keep my sore throat at bay. But the butterflies in my stomach, bred in fear of what secrets the MRI will reveal, find their way up to my throat as well.
Garbed in a scrub shirt, like the ones the techs are wearing, I wish I was a tech instead of a patient here. An IV is pierced into my vein as it is explained that a magical foreign liquid will be injected into my body to create more contrast in the orbit pictures of my eyes and pituitary after the main brain scan.
Taken into the room with the large tube, I am given earplugs and big ear muffs. I lie down on the cart where my head is strapped into a device to keep it from moving. Glad to have help maintaining a motionless head, I also wonder what will happen if the cold I have coming on causes sneezing, “Only my head is going into the tube, right?” I ask, to clarify my whole body need not be encased in the long tunnel, given my slight tendency to claustrophobia.
“We have to slide you in until your head is in the middle,” is the unwelcome response. My cart is then pushed off into the tunnel, like a carnival ride boarding passengers. The tube manages to envelope my whole body. “This first test is only forty-five minutes,” my technician friend continues. I close my eyes, not wanting to see how closed in it might make me feel; but I peek out and then agree with my decision to keep lids down. I start telling myself if POWs could endure what they did for months and years, I endure this for forty-five minutes.
My machine comes to life with whirring sounds. Then it sounds like hammering on the metal tunnel with a huge hammer. When that noise eases, it sounds like someone is drilling through the tunnel just above my head; followed by jackhammering. Every few minutes a new tool, the next sounding like an instrument from outer-space. I am thankful the noises vary, imagining what it would be like to listen to the same noise for the whole forty-five. Every so often it gets silent for two seconds as my cart moves back and forward a bit and then the hammer begins again, handing over to the drill, then jackhammer, and on down the line, over and over.
In a time-warp, I have no idea how many minutes I have endured. As I clutch the squeeze ball that is my Give-Up escape, I just keep telling myself that I have to make it through to the end because I couldn’t bear to have to start all over again. If I left, I might never come back. My throat tickles and mucous is rising from my bronchial tubes. I do throat manipulations without moving anything else to smooth out the distress, over and over. I was told I could keep my rings on, but I feel them vibrating throughout the whole process.
After what seems an eternity, I start to panic. The beckoning cough is getting impossible to hold back much longer. I fight claustrophobia. Trying so hard not to blow the test, I doubt I am going to make it. Then, suddenly, the machine stops and my cart slides out. Relief slides through my whole body. Mr. Tech says I have made it through the first scan, enduring forty minutes.
Visions of standing up for two minutes, coughing out my throat-tickles, dance in my head. But, Mr. Tech has other ideas. He is ready, injection in hand, to fill my IV with the magic liquid and send me right back in for the orbit scans. I beg for a few minutes to recover. He says “No.” But after a short discussion about whether to finish or return another day, it is decided to wait. While the orbits are shorter scans, twelve minutes each, they are more sensitive and can blur from vibrations in the throat. Given the clearing in my throat I had to do during the first test, it seems chancy to do the orbits now. I take an appointment in three days.
After spending two days trying every possible over-the-counter and old-wives-tale method of fighting-off a cold, I return to the imaging center for what my technician buddy had said would be a thirty-minute visit. Proud that my cold is as minor as it is, given my usual tendency to bronchitis within three days, I still cough and sneezed once during my class an hour earlier.
I feel a bit uncomfortable when the assistant ushers me to the hallway at the other side of the building. It seems the familiar room might have been more comforting. When she takes my blood pressure it is higher than on the first visit. I recall that just prior to coming that day, I was with my two-year-old grandson who, upon waking from a nap, kept looking up at me and giving me kisses, over and over. I wish I had his kisses to calm me today.
Taken to an MRI room, technician Mike, greets me. Again, I explain my cold, lung condition and need to cough and clear my throat. My request for a break between orbits to cough was heartily denied. My head must remain in the exact same position the whole time. Mike did agree to tell me when I could clear my throat without moving my jaw between pictures. As he slides me into the tunnel, I wonder why they have not put the IV into my arm, but who am I to question their methods?
This machine has different noises. The hammer banging is already going on in the background as I glide into the tube. Upon commencement, the first noise sounds like a police siren on top of my head. Then a new siren sounds like an air-raid alert. As the air-raid continues for long periods, drilling appears to be just outside the tunnel off and on.
After about five minutes Mike slides me out, saying it’s OK to clear my throat now. I really need to cough at this point, so I raise one hand to cover a cough. “No!!! You can’t move your head one millimeter!!!” he says excitedly. “Now we have to start over with the baseline picture.” He instantly pushes me back into the tube. As a tear rolls out the corner of my eye, I wonder why I couldn’t have coughed first, as long as he is starting over.
Five minutes later my cart rolls out again as Mike apologizes for being stern with me and says it’s time for the contrast injection. He grabs my right arm out from under the warming blanket and starts inserting the IV. He thanks me for bringing good veins, as phlebotomists always do, while I wonder why he could jerk my arm around doing this when I couldn’t cough.
Suddenly, Mike sounds panicked, saying my vein collapsed. Still staring at the ceiling, pain fills my arm as he attempts to stop the bleeding and the running-out dye he is trying to inject. I wonder what color my pale yellow sweater sleeve is now. I feel a stinging prick in my hand. Mike says a second vein collapsed. He asks if I am on medication, as for high blood pressure, which I am not. He informs me he is going for a nurse. I try to maintain my exact head position of the baseline pictures.
The nurse tends to my wounds, asking if I have had collapsing veins before. Moving only my tongue I say “Never.” They bring in Ross, big-guns vein man, to IV me. Amid conversations of these three medical magicians, it occurs to me that Mike’s voice sounds like a mafia hit-man and come to think of it, his shiny bald head I recall makes him look a bit like one.
Finally, after holding my head motionless for about thirty minutes, my cart is slipped back into the tunnel. I try to relax as the banging, sirens, and jackhammering resumes. I distract myself from the noise with good thoughts, like how I will describe this experience in a story. But thoughts that my sweet sister-in-law Sally just arrived at a nearby Hospice House to begin her last few days haunt me. Not sure if swelling tear ducts will ruin the scans, I force myself to focus on the sirens and hammering. My eyes closed for so long, I begin to wonder whether they have moved. Mike didn’t tell me not to move my eyes but since my eyes are being scanned it seems important to keep them motionless. Suddenly my ears feel warm. Although I know I didn’t put any on this morning, I wonder whether I forgot to take out my earrings last night.
After an eternity, Mike says “One last picture will just take five more minutes.” The air-raid comes on and stays constant the whole five minutes except for one one-second break. My cart slides out. I am told what a great job I did. When I retrieve my watch, I see the thirty-minute visit has been ninety minutes. I limp off to my car with sore arm and weary nerves. Wanting this MRI over with as fast as possible, because I always want information on where I stand, I now don’t want to know the results.
My wish to not know the outcome of the MRI comes true for some time, but it turns to torture. Friends ask why I haven’t called the doctor and all I can say is, “I fear the results,” especially as time goes on and I assume he would have called immediately if the results were negative. It would have been an easy thirty second call to say, “No problem.” I assume he is trying to figure out what to do, perhaps gathering together a team of experts to work on my brain. I have a vision of him on the Internet asking ‘what now?’
On Friday, a week after the last MRI, I respond to my husband, “I don’t want to ruin my weekend by hearing the result.” A part of me hopes not to know before my next writer’s workshop in five more days, as I fear not being able to read my story about the MRI once I know the results because I tear-up so easily.
On Tuesday instead of calling the doctor, I call the imaging clinic asking how long it takes for my doctor to get results. My heart sinks when I am told the doctor was sent my results a week earlier. I can’t even hope there is a hold up with reading of the data. By now I have read about other unsavory possible causes of my skewed peripheral vision test. I wonder if the doctor only told me the best possible cause, as my heart feels weighed down by my eyes.
The Wednesday writer’s workshop comes and goes without being able to read my MRI story, as time doesn’t permit everyone to read that day. I leave frustrated as now I carry the burden of having to read my story when I may be very emotional about the outcome.
I feel trapped. I now have to call the doctor. On the twelfth day after the MRIs were completed, I call and am told the doctor’s assistant will call right back. I carry around my phones and butterflies for the next four hours. For two more days I answer every phone call, even though I know most of them are going to be telemarketing calls, just in case the doctor calls from an unidentified phone. No call back for two more days. I call again and am told the assistant will talk to the doctor about it “at the end of clinic today.” So, I wait for the phone to ring, to know my fate two weeks post imaging.
Knowing a watched phone doesn’t ring, I busy myself with writing more of my story and doing word puzzles. The phone finally rings. Doctor-assistant Janessa informs me she is trying to get the imaging center to fax her information, claiming she didn’t receive the results the clinic told me they sent eleven days ago. I am frustrated with excuses but realize I now have a chance at a reprieve from my assumed death sentence.
Asked how late she will be in the office today, Janessa says, “Fifteen minutes, but I will be in at 7:30 AM Monday morning.” Seeing there is no chance she can get back to me this afternoon, I ask if the doctor can call me when the papers are faxed. She says, “Of course.” I wait a couple more hours with no results, then go through the weekend half furious and half relieved I don’t know bad news.
At 8:30 AM Monday morning Janessa calls to see if the doctor called me Friday afternoon. To my “No” she responds that she will have him call me after surgery in the afternoon. I spend another day waiting and watching the clock and telephones. No call.
When I call Wednesday afternoon and explain to the receptionist how agonizingly long I have been waiting for a call about my results, she says she will inform all of Dr. B’s assistants. I respond, “I have already talked to his assistants and all they can tell me is the doctor will call. But he doesn’t! Will you please tell the doctor I want him to call me?”
“Oh, yes” is her response. Still no call by the end of Wednesday. At this point I now know he has had knowledge of the results long enough to gather together a team of brain surgeons, pituitary specialists, and ophthalmic mavens to plot my path of treatment.
While my friend has made me promise to call again on Thursday, I am too busy taking care of my grandson to pester the ophthalmic receptionist that day. I leave at 4 PM to begin the two-hour drive to see my granddaughters. I might as well go while I can still see them. I let my Bluetooth earphones pinch my ears on the way down, just in case Doc calls.
When the phone rings it is not the doctor but my husband. He says the doctor left a message. It is three weeks since the MRIs were completed. The Doc simply said he has just been reviewing my MRI results (like he has just now finally seen them) and the pictures are clear. “Everything is PERFECT!” he says; “No pituitary tumor.”
Twenty-one days of torture waiting to hear my fate. Sure the delayed communications were caused by complications in my brain, anxiety hung over each day. Finally, the ten second promised call comes and all I can do, at this point, is laugh. I have a perfect brain? Who wrote the book on patient relations?