*That’s not a fart. In retrospect, I’d say that this, over all else, is the most important thing I can tell you.
What I mean is, the night before the procedure, after you’ve finished drinking all that lime-flavored stuff to flush out your system–after you’ve given all you have to give in the bathroom, so to speak–you’re going to think you’re completely empty.
And at some point you’re going to be relaxing in front of your TV or reading or on the computer or, God forbid, somewhere out in public, and in your mind you’re going to wager that what you feel coming on is a fart. No matter how lucky or assured you feel, you’re going to be wrong. Remember that.
But then, I’m getting ahead of myself, which is ironic, considering that my general physician doctor told me I was actually behind–I’m 56 and he says I should have had one six years earlier. Of course, in this case, late is better than later. Thus, I began 2012 with plans for my first colonoscopy.
I dig my fifties. I’m fit, I generally feel good and most important, I now know just enough about life to realize I’ve got plenty to learn. I relish the adventure.
But I am 56. Your 40s and 50s is when life commences its most dramatic shift, emotionally, spiritually, physically. If you’re honest, you accept that there comes a time in life when you can’t take good health for granted. Getting older brings its landmarks–such as no longer being able to scarf down a pint of Haagen Dazs every night. Like having to do some sort of exercise regularly. Like at age 50 having a christening examination of your colon.
My doctor gave me plenty information regarding the process, and I’d read about it online. Moreover, I got the lowdown from friends who’d done it, all of whom told me the biggest drag was not the colonoscopy itself, but drinking the concoction designed to clean out your colon in preparation, the day before. However, except for that thing I mentioned at the top of my story, for me that part was a breeze.
Rather, my concern was in making certain I wasn’t awake while the doctor did their thing. The sheer notion gave me the heebie jeebies. Thankfully, I was told there were two kinds of unconsciousness: “out,” as in a kind of twilight sleep where you’re sort of awake but don’t feel anything, and “out-out.” Either way, I wouldn’t feel anything. Cool.
“Where’s the person to help you home?” the receptionist behind the counter at the hospital tersely inquired on the morning of my procedure. I wasn’t worried. I felt good. Turns out, having an empty stomach left me energized and alert. “I’m taking a cab home,” I replied.
That wasn’t exactly the truth. I promised myself that if I felt I truly needed a cab, I’d call one. My pigheaded plan–against my doctor’s stern counsel and everything I’d read–was to rest in recovery, get dressed, check out, sit in the waiting room as if I were waiting for someone to come get me and then slip out and drive myself home. I’d picked up friends at the hospital after their colonoscopy, and they were groggy but most of them told me they felt they could have driven themselves home.
“Cab? That’s fine,” the receptionist retorted. “You still need to have someone here to help you into the cab and out once you’re home.”
The cab driver would do that, I assured her. “I’ll be okay.” Then she assured me: If I didn’t arrange physical assistance–if she couldn’t call the person from her hospital phone and then see them in the flesh at her station–I wasn’t having a colonoscopy.
A nurse who came out to get me told me the same thing. “Unless,” she said, “you don’t wish to be sedated.” Of every ten colonoscopy patients, she explained, two opt to stay awake during the procedure. “That way, afterward, you simply get dressed and leave. Some people just don’t like the sedative.”
Well, I wasn’t one of them. However, in trying to be slick, I’d put myself in a trick bag and now I had two choices: forfeit having starved two days and swigged a gallon of bowel movement cocktail only to reschedule the procedure for a day when I had someone to pick me up, or go in and, no pun intended, get this shit over with. After deliberating a few seconds, I nervously said I’d do it now, without the sedation. “Really?” said the nurse.
“The good news,” encouraged the young man with spiky black hair in blue scrubs and white Nikes who navigated my bed down a hall toward the operating room, “is that you’re being done by the head of the department. She’s the best–been doing these for years.”
I appreciated his attempt to comfort, but it was too late: after entering my curtained space to check my temperature and blood pressure, he’d already read my chart and blurted, “Dude–you’re gonna be awake? Commando Style!”
Dr. Colonoscopy, a pleasant, soft-spoken and diminutive late 50-something Indian woman, no doubt sensed my trepidation. Directing me onto my left side with my knees perfecting a near fetus position, she calmly explained that what I’d feel during the procedure would only amount to the sensation of say, severe gas, but that she’d stop whenever I asked her to. And, she added, pointing to the flat screen monitor up on the wall, since I was awake and her instrument, the endoscope, was equipped with a camera, I could witness the whole thing.
“How do you feel about men?” I asked, a feeble attempt at humor. “Oh, I like men,” the doctor answered brightly. “But that’s because I take out all my aggression on them here….”
With that, the doctor gingerly entered the Forbidden Realm. To the beat of rock music–A-ha’s annoying 1985 synth pop hit, “Take On Me” will never sound the same again–she turned and twisted her pin light-equipped instrument through the pink, juicy maze that is my colon, with the ingenuity of a “Star Wars” Jedi at the controls of a battle craft.
Indeed, it occurred to me that aside from the odd black and white x-ray, in 56 years of living in this body, I’d never seen inside of it. And now, there my colon was on the screen, in high definition. I was absolutely fascinated. “Okay, take a deep breath,” the doctor advised whenever she ventured into a particularly tight spot, in search of insurgents.
She was right–occasionally, it felt like heavy-duty gas. Beyond that, nothing, really. I spent the procedure gazing upon my innards with a pride that can only be described as paternal. After more than five decades, my colon had served me so well. And then I suddenly became forlorn, penitent that my poor, innocent colon had ME–who all too often deprived it of water and fresh fruits and vegetables and other sources of fiber–as its landlord. I felt sad for it. I vowed to do better.
In no time, it was over. The doctor’s assistants praised me for undergoing a colonoscopy without the benefit of a sedative. And those insurgents? “I found nothing,” the doctor triumphantly answered. “You don’t have to do this for ten years.”
I got dressed, tiptoed past a recovery room full of patients in post booty-boogie slumber and stepped out into the L.A. morning sunshine, armed with a new dedication to be kinder to my body–to be kinder to ME. That procedure provided me a dynamic jump start to my self-love fest. Everywhere I went that day, the proud gait in my strut said it all: “I just had a colonoscopy–AWAKE, punk.”
And so, though people want to talk colonoscopy like they want to have a cheerful chat about death and taxes, I’m on a mission to spread the word. If you haven’t had a colonoscopy and you’re in that magical age range, schedule one. “Out,” “out-out” or commando style, doesn’t matter. Just do it. But keep in mind what I said about that fart.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].