Institutions demand passivity. They run on processes like trucks run on diesel and only a fool resists the process once they are in the system. Challenging the process leads only to raised voices: it will not speed anything up or slow anything down. You may as well be a sandcastle resisting the tide. If you accept the process, its form and its pace, then you can experience the institution at peace. In fact, if you have a stressful life full of appointments, and notifications, and deadlines letting the tides of the institution wash over you can be tremendously relaxing. Once you are on the conveyor belt you just have to do what you’re told.
Even though my appointment was at 1.15pm, and they didn’t really begin to deal with me until after 3.00pm, and I should have felt frustrated by this, those two hours became an enjoyable enforced break. I would probably pay about $10 to be able to go into a room, take off my clothes, put on a gown, lie in a bed and look out a window for two hours. Maybe even $15. The view out the window was of a bank of trees densely covered in thick, dark green leaves, sometimes agitated by the wind, a complex shifting pattern of light and shade.
The window was about five metres from the foot of my bed, across the corridor and in the Recovery Room. The Recovery Room was square and furnished in the shabby, mismatched style of a waiting room that has been styled by accumulation not by design. In the centre of the room was a coffee table stacked with magazines, and in one corner a coffee and tea dispenser with twist and click dials for depositing units of coffee powder into white plastic cups.
The large linoleumed room where the patients are prepped had no privacy. Although there may be curtains to save the embarrassment of seeing strangers’ hospital gowns gaping at inopportune moments, curtains do nothing to stop sound travelling. Behind the curtain next to me I could hear a woman snoring and sometimes farting; the soft putt-putt-putt of gas like air escaping a slowly releasing balloon.
The worst thing about a colonoscopy is getting ready over the two days beforehand. Not eating and taking laxatives makes me feel grotty and angry. By the time I confirmed my details at the gastroenterology reception I had a slight headache and found myself glaring at anyone I saw daring to have a snack.
A student nurse took my details and my blood pressure after I checked in. She was Asian, and her English was good but heavily accented. She reacted in a surprised way to everything I said.
When did you last have water?
An hour ago.
An hour ago!? When did you last eat?
Even though I carefully followed the instructions they sent me in the post I began to lose confidence. Perhaps I had misread the information? Perhaps the process would be halted? But she made nothing more of it and when she took the cuff off my bicep she told me merely that my blood pressure was good.
The head of my bed was raised perhaps 45 degrees so that I could see across the corridor into the Recovery Room and out the window to the trees.
Phones rang and people came in to deliver messages. A man, 86, was coming soon. They prepared extra oxygen. I mentally calculated the 86 year old’s year of birth. 1929. The same year as my father. Perhaps my father, who died when I was five, would be dead by now anyway I reflected. 86 is pretty old. If he were alive he would be the same age as this man who is now being wheeled to gastro. My father was the reason I was here in the first place, being screened for one of the cancers that led to his death. It was some time before I saw the man born the year of my dad. I heard him arrive, and misunderstanding the student nurse, and giving reports on how far along he was getting undressed, and then dressed again. Eventually he emerged, shuffling past the end of my bed and into the Recovery Room. He looked an old man in too big clothes but he was – it turned out – ill. For some reason all case histories were discussed out in the open of the large linoleumed room with curtains, and we all learned about his many polyps and what bits of him they were going to cut.
We also learned all about a Japanese businessman’s health. He had two ulcers. Japanese embassy staff showed up to assist; the woman dressed in the uniform of the Japanese office lady: plain black pumps, stockings, a knee length grey skirt, blouse and jacket top. Almost every office lady I worked with in Japan wore exactly the same thing. The more daring office lady would wear pants instead of the skirt. It seemed a long time ago now since I lived in Japan. We went in 1998 and returned in 2003. 12 years later there I was: wife, kids, house, mortgage, career. Hospitals are fine places to contemplate your mortality. They deal with things that kill you, they are used to delivering bad news in anonymous, interchangeable rooms, anonymous interchangeable rooms that can be wiped down over and over and over. In the wipe-down world of the hospital humans are transient. Your best hope in a hospital is to be told that you are fine and gain a respite from the day that you are not.
Eventually a plump Middle-Eastern man came to explain what they wanted to do with with my fluids, or do with fluids to me should the need arise. I signed the consent. It would have seemed churlish at this point not to. Some time after three I was wheeled the five metres to the procedure room with all the screens, and trolleys and machines that go ping. The tube they were about to shove up me was lying on a white towel, the incredibly detailed image of strands of towelling projected on the screens on either side of the bed.
Inevitably I was introduced to the two female student doctors who were going to observe. I say inevitably because anything involving my bottom and medicine always includes a gaggle of student doctors keen to have a look. These two come up to the foot of my bed and introduced themselves, but after that they lingered awkwardly and I wasn’t sure if I should say something encouraging about my colon to put them at their ease. The doctor said that she remembered my name from 2009. This immediately made me wonder if my bowel was particularly memorable in some way.
When they did colonoscopies in 2009 they didn’t sedate you and I remembered being asked if I wanted to watch the procedure on the TV monitor while they performed it. Perhaps some people would leap at this opportunity, but I learned at that moment that I am utterly incurious about my internal organs. In 2015 they sedate you, and you fall asleep shortly after the sedative hits your vein and just before you have the alarming feeling of cold lubricant being applied with authority to your bottom.
I wake up back where I started looking across the hall and through the window in the Recovery Room. The nurse comes in after a while and drops a sheet of paper on my chest.
“You’re normal,” he says.
Perhaps the bowel can tell you a lot about a person’s character.
The 86 year old man has gone. The Japanese business man has gone. Soon I will get up drowsily and dress. Soon I will be back. Five years older with a teenage daughter, and another in primary school, lying in the same bed hoping to get the same sheet I got today that says the same thing it said today.