Saturday, September 22, 2012

Adventures in Gynecology: Squirrel Edition

The weirdest aspect of my recent medical crisis was sitting with the surgeon's scheduling assistant as he ran through a series of pre-op questions. My sister was with me in case I zoned out and didn't pay attention to something.

Justin zipped through some mundane stuff, such as, "Do you, or have you ever, smoked?" and "Do you have any allergies?" and then he got to the real humdinger: "I have to kind of collect myself for this one, and I know it's going to seem rude and possibly weird," he paused, and with a mostly straight face, inquired: "Do you eat squirrels?"

Crickets chirped outside the window as the next several seconds passed in stunned silence. Finally, my sister blurted out, "ARE YOU SERIOUS?"

"Yes, unfortunately, we ask all of our patients who live outside the Big City that question. There's something in their brains (it's called a prion, actually) that's very dangerous to our oncology patients and there's a terrible infection risk. So we ask everyone. I thought it was bizarre until one of our ladies called last week and asked if squirrel broth was okay since beef and chicken were on our list of pre-op foods. I know her and I just had this image in my mind of her sitting on her porch and chasing the squirrels when they came down in her yard."

We sat there for a moment, mulling this over, and then my sister said, "Well, that's not how you catch them."

"Right, you shoot them," responded our city-bred young man.

"No," my sister told him, her face a mask of dead calm, "you use a fishing rod, with bread or peanut butter as the bait, and then you cast up into the trees. You wait until you feel one take the bait, then you reel it in like a fish." She demonstrated the whole process of casting a line up into the branches and reeling in the line.

Justin's jaw was just about on the floor until she finally smiled and said, "I'm kidding. You do shoot them."

What had set both of us off was the assumption that only we hicks outside the city are prone to eating squirrels. Not too surprisingly, my sister told Justin that she thought it was a mistake to rule out city-dwelling squirrel-eaters, and while I was in the hospital recovering right there in the Big City, a man was arrested for killing squirrels out of season in the part of town my sister had suggested as squirrelmageddon to Justin.

I'm a reference librarian. I've been asked some damned strange stuff in my career, but Justin and his squirrel question win, hands down.

42 (the Meaning of Life?)

My sister has been bemoaning turning forty for the last several months, and the momentous occasion arrived last Thursday. Somehow, though, the import was dampened by the fact that things have been...errr...eventful for me since late July. We're having her family birthday dinner tonight. I didn't know if I would be here for it. I didn't know if I'd still be among the living...literally.

I'd had some "female troubles" during my annual camp event and they weren't improving. It finally became clear that the weren't going away, so I made an appointment with a new gynecologist, since they have a habit of leaving town after a few years when the malpractice insurance bills are issued for the coming year, and off I went. There was some thoughtful consideration of the symptoms I described, and I was shuttled off to the medical imaging center across town for a very uncomfortable examination.

After the ultrasound technician finished, the sixty-something radiologist came in and told me, apologetically, "I need to look at something again." Fifteen minutes later he was standing at the foot of the table, trying to gauge the size of something with his fingers. I was sitting there thinking, okay, it's bigger than a tennis ball...but smaller than a basketball...when he cleared his throat and announced, "Look, I'm sorry to tell you this, but there's a mass on your right ovary the size of a grapefruit. It looks like there's another one on the other ovary. The good news is that the viscosity and size give every indication of being benign."

Benign. As in, "malignant or benign"...as in, 'you probably don't have cancer, but you can't entirely rule it out'. Oh. Merde.

Long story short, at my current weight and body mass distribution, combined with the size of the mass, no general gynecologist wanted to yank the things. I asked an advanced-practice nurse whom I trust and a perinatological OB-GYN whose sister is a childhood friend, and got some names of oncologists. I recognized one-she's the granddaughter of a famous OB-GYN my parents had known when Dad was in med school.

My poor new gyno referred me on to the oncologist. The experience was surreal. I got there and realized as I sat in the waiting room that the door to the examining area was the gateway to heaven or hell- literally. This surgeon would determine whether or not I had cancer. I looked around; everyone around me was there facing similar news. I plastered what I hoped was a calm expression on my face and realized that I was gritting my teeth.

On August 27th, my right ovary, along with a very large grapefruit-sized mass, was removed by open incision, and a smaller mass was ruptured and suctioned out on the left. I kept that left ovary along with my uterus. For four days, I lay in the hospital and I'll let you in on a secret: if you ever have to have this done, you'll never be so enthused (or less embarrassed) about passing gas in your life, and the best news that I've ever gotten, besides, "You got tenure!", "You passed your qualifier", "You've won a full scholarship", and "Your mother is going to live", are:

"Congratulations, the pathology came back clean. You don't have cancer."

My first full public outing was my 25th class reunion. I deliberately scheduled my surgery so that I would be able to attend. I am no the only one of us to dance with potential death, just the closest to the reunion date. So now it's up to me, and to paraphrase one of my favorite movie quotations, it's time to get busy livin'.