Last week I was on the treadmill reading an horrendous article about a mob of South African slum dwellers who murdered an innocent Zimbabwean man. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was foreign. The report was riveting and filled me with all sorts of conflicted emotions as I kept my 4.4 brisk walking pace and 135 bpm. I should have been pushing, running at 7.5, but the story was quite a piece or journalism. I could not stop reading it. My cell phone rang just as the writer was describing exactly which blows to the Zimbabwean man's head might have been fatal. I glanced down and saw that it was a number that I didn't know in Beverly Hills. I stepped off the treadmill and answered it. A cartoon like voice asked for me. It sounded like Alvin the Chipmunk's girlfriend was calling. I could not understand a word she said. The second time, it came in crystal clear:
" I am calling you from the Beverly Tower Women's Center. The doctor wants to you to come back and have an ultrasound of your right breast and some additional imaging done. When can I make you an appointment?".
I had just had a mammogram, or a boob squishing, as Big likes to call it, the day before. I stuttered a little and made the soonest appointment I could get, which was six days away. I pressed end and thought about the suggestion box in the procedural area. I may leave a note that the bearers of such news should be required to use their Jeremy Irons voice instead of their I-just-took-a-hit-off-this-helium-tank-voice.
I got back on the treadmill and finished the article, which only got more devastating since justice was never served and not one person feels guilty about killing an innocent person. I could not shake the phone call, either. I was sure it would be nothing, as many many women receive the second call. I couldn't help fantasizing into the future if the worst case were true. The first thing I thought is how delightful it would be to have the down time. I know, it sounds insane, but please know that I do not want cancer so I can sleep in. It just seemed like a nice idea to be the one with the needs for a change, instead of always anticipating other people's needs. Then I thought of the mom at our school who is battling cancer for the second time but who is there all the time anyway, looking exhausted, but obviously trying to savor every second she has. She is simultaneously wearing the " volunteer mom" hat and the "I might die tomorrow" hat, so I suppose in reality, the downtime I seek will be in death. Warren Zevon had it right with " I'll Sleep When I'm Dead". Then I thought of all the weight I might lose (just trying to see the upside, people). But how pointless to worry about looking fat when I might die horribly from something hiding in my boobs. I wondered if it might be the result of the few times I carried my phone inside my jogging bra, or those extra dental x-rays, or all the traveling through airport scanners, or that time the Channel 7 News parked in front of the house with their Pluto sized satellite pointing right into the bedroom windows. My neighbor chased them off, claiming that the microwave rays were nearly deadly at such close range. I thought he was insane at the time, but maybe he was right- technology is probably killing us. Rationally I know that the majority of my worries are unlikely, or everyone would have cancer. Then I thought about how truly awful it must be to receive such a diagnosis and how all the bitching and complaining I have done up to this point is just ridiculous considering the lives of others.
My doctor called the next day and told me that the follow up was necessary because the images they had taken were "inconclusive", so I didn't need to worry about it. I did, but the call made me feel better. We still had a fine weekend, with lots of socializing and spending time with the kids. I mentioned my second call to a few friends, all of whom had the same experience, so it seemed less stressful as the day of the follow up appointment drew nearer.
I went back to the same place the following Tuesday. I was called into the same office as before. I was given a dusty rose colored poly blend "gown" and asked to wait in a small room the size of a Motel 6 closet. My name was called by the same person who had taken the photos last week. She was fiftiesh and had shoulder length white hair. Like last time, she had the overworked and underpaid quality that seems so prevalent in healthcare. They were understaffed, again, and someone had just gone home sick. She brought me into the same room as before and said " The radiologist saw something on the right side that wasn't their last year, so let's take some different angles and get a better look." Not what I was expecting to hear, as my doctor's call had made it sound like the pictures had simply been blurry. The woman then proceeded to smash my boob into several sadomasochistic positions, as if she were planning on winning a pizza making contest right there in the exam room. It was not pleasant, but neither is cancer.
When we were finished, I was told to wait for the ultrasound tech to call my name. After fifteen minutes in the little closet with the accordion door, a scrub clad blonde woman with an Eastern European accent called my name and took me into another room. It had a bed covered with white crinkly paper. I lay on the table. She squirted the ultra sound gel onto my right boob and smooshed it around with the wand. It is always a bit surreal to have anyone who isn't your offspring or your spouse handle your boobs without so much as a handshake, let alone a cocktail. We both looked at the screen. The inside of the human breast looks like the bottom of a Louisiana bayou- all strands and globs and strangeness. She was squishing around silently, and finally located the mystery image that "wasn't there last year". She took several photos of it. "Nah, you are good- just some cysts",she said suddenly. I nodded, assuming that was good news and said something like "Great!". She handed me a tissue, told me to wait for the doctor and left. I sat up and wiped the residual goo off my chest, thinking that about what a bizarre thing the human body is. How cruel it is that the one thing that sustains human life can clandestinely harbor the very thing that takes it away. I heard the clip clop of heels on linoleum, the chipper rat a tat tat on the door.A terrifically stylish, tan linen sheath wearing, perfumed doctor poked her head in. She also sounded Eastern European. "Okay! It is just some cysts, so you are all good- come back in one year!". I said "Great!" again, and she was gone, clip clopping down the hall to the next room I wondered what her demeanor was like when delivering bad news-did she actually enter the room? Did she walk more slowly? Did she wear quieter shoes?
I am eternally grateful that I did not have to find out that day. I passed by the suggestion box and thought better of leaving a comment. It seemed that everyone in there was pretty damn chipper despite their obvious exhaustion with the subject matter. If they want to greet the public with relentless cheeriness and enthusiasm to counteract the effects of having the burden of a million women's health issues on their heads, then far be it from me to interfere. I wandered out onto Roxbury Drive and back to my car, thinking about how awkward it is to navigate the healthcare system when you are well. My heart goes out to the women who are sick and fighting,and also to that poor Zimbabwean soul who didn't deserve his fate.