I’m no stranger to public humiliation, particularly as it relates to my body parts and medical matters. That die was cast forty years ago when, after sixteen hours of labor, I lost control of my bowels in full view of my OB, a resident, and two medical students. Worse perhaps was overhearing my then-husband detail this episode to a roomful of strangers, which partially explains his “then” designation.
From the Top
Later, throughout my thirties and forties, I experienced a number of concerning breast “irregularities,” as well as a not-small crush on the handsome young breast surgeon who examined me each time a new issue surfaced. My hot-cheeked embarrassment at having him closely inspect my (literally) half-naked self was tempered by 1) my sheer terror over a potentially serious finding and 2) my utter despair that I’d apparently reached an age where I had to pay a man to feel my breasts.
Fortunately, despite some harrowing close calls, all turned out well and my troublesome boobs behaved themselves for the next several years. Until January 2021, the year of living embarrassingly. Apropos of nothing, deep aching started in my right breast, along with a terrifying twist—”leaking,” sometimes tinged with blood. This set me on a scary six-month roller coaster of diagnostic mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, and countless feeling-ups from an array of “breastologists,” including four surgeons, two radiologists, and one bored parking attendant. Stripping from the waist up every time I entered a medical office became so routine I did it without being prompted, which really threw my eye doctor for a loop.
The multiple exams revealed nothing amiss, yet all my symptoms and the debilitating anxiety they induced persisted. My doctors were attentive and even intrigued, yet perplexed. As an accomplished hypochondriac, I was convinced the tests were missing something horrid that was festering undetected and undeterred. Unbridled panic drove me to do the very thing I’d been heavily cautioned not to do—surf the net for answers.
By my appointment with the fourth-opinion breast surgeon (a lovely, if rather sober, woman), I was a jumble of nerves, having misGoogled myself into needing every procedure but an emergency vasectomy. Dr. Lovely-but-Sober presented her recommendation for my final option to stop the leaking. “As we’ve exhausted all diagnostic tests and gotten no answers,” she explained, “you could consider getting your ducts–”
At which point, inappropriate humor–my go-to response in the face of overwhelming fear and apprehension–took over and I couldn’t help blurting out, “in a row.” Dr. LBS cocked her head, exhaled with a hint of exasperation, and continued, “excised to stop the leaking.”
My fear-addled brain struggled to make sense of her words, initially interpreting “excise” as “exercise” or possibly “exorcise,” neither of which I was a big fan, and neither of which seemed likely solutions to my problem. Then my mental dictionary flipped open to “excise,” even worse! Excise, as in slice me open? And remove my ducts? All of them? Good grief, I had visions of her pulling out the whole network like long strings of spaghetti.
Actually, the procedure involved removing only the terminal end of the ductwork and, hallelujah, that 1.9-centimeter section contained a sneaky, but completely benign, papilloma whose stealthy positioning had allowed it to evade all the sophisticated imaging tests. So, with a little snip-and-zip, months of pain and dread, not to mention my flashing unsuspecting health care workers, came to an end.
And Bringing Up the Rear
But I was not in the clear. A week later, the embarrassment factor rose substantially when I was struck with a violent stomachache shortly after wolfing down a baked sweet potato for dinner. The pain raged all night and was so intense by 6:00 a.m. my husband whisked me to the hospital. Clearly, this was more than sweet potato indigestion.
Once at the hospital, I was examined by two barely pubescent ER docs who must surely have come from the same gene pool of handsomeness as my long-ago breast surgeon. Seriously, these kids were so adorable I nearly blushed. (Where were these cutie-pie doctors when I was about a hundred years younger and not attired in dog-hair-covered socks and a hospital gown? Youth really is wasted on the young.)
Anyway, Doogie Howser #1 and #2 got right down to business. “Tell me about your bowel movements,” said #2 (no pun). Geez, I thought, I’d been out of the social scene since Covid first hit, but it was hard to believe this was what icebreakers had come to.
“Well,” I responded, “regarding my bowel movements, I generally prefer some kind of bathroom facility—home, restaurant, high-end retail establishment, what have you. Of course, there was that unfortunate roadside incident back in 2016, but that could happen to anyone. Buttercream icing, am I right?”
It turned out, however, the Doogies were after nittier, grittier, detailed information. Talk about embarrassing. Then, while I was awaiting my abdominal CT results, a pretty internist (it’s like they all answered a casting call for attractive medical personnel, emphasizing by contrast my pathetically crummy appearance), dropped in to double check my most recent colonoscopy results and, of course, inquire about my bowel movements. Seriously. Shortly thereafter one of the Doogies came to tell me the CT showed I had a small bowel obstruction, which was of concern regarding cause and resolution. After a flurry of opinions about next steps, the team voted for giving my kinky bowel a little time to possibly untangle itself. Every half hour thereafter, a team member would pop in and ask expectantly, “Anything yet?” to see if traffic had started flowing through my intestinal highway.
The thoroughfare remained stubbornly snarled until around 3:00 p.m. when thar she blew! Relief was swift, welcome, and mortifyingly loud. With the prices hospitals charge, you’d think they’d have enough money to soundproof the bathrooms.
When I slinked out of the bathroom, my team was waiting right there and happily confirmed the blow out was a good sign. A repeat CT showed great progress in the unkinking. They watched me overnight, and in the morning let me go home to self-monitor. After rechecking all the info about my bowel movements, of course.
Two weeks later I had a follow-up appointment with a GI surgeon. The exam room door opened and, yes, in walked yet one more dreamy doc who was dying to know all about my bathroom habits. By this point I had lost all inhibitions and not only provided a detailed diary of my daily movements, but was ready to invite him to accompany me to the restroom if that would provide more clarity. Honestly.
Dr. Dreamy ordered a CT enterography to rule out any serious issues, but he suspected the powder-heavy mix of my Metamucil cocktails was the only issue. (FYI, if not combined with enough water, Metamucil can be used to patch concrete.)
And Dr. Dreamy was right; nothing ominous was brewing in my small bowel. (Although, the radiologist declaring my bowel “unremarkable” seemed rather rude. Hey, next to Dr. Dreamy I found him unremarkable, but I certainly wouldn’t say that to him.) In the preceding eleven months, I’d been probed and palpated, checked out with both naked-eye and high-tech vision, and finally cleared for take-off. Who knows what calamities await any of us, but as the curtain fell on 2021, I allowed myself to enjoy a few moments of sweet relief. And deep gratitude—for good outcomes, for wonderful family support, and, of course, for medical professionals who took sincere interest in my bothersome boobs and humble bowel movements and weren’t ashamed to show it.