Thursday, May 15, 2008

Women's Healthcare

I recently participated in an annual health care event. Upon my arrival I looked to the registrar for reassurance. I nervously laugh when the elderly woman near by informs us 'the girls are ready for their close up'.

I shared my personal information while she used her best soothing voice and flashed a comforting smile to calm my queasy nerves - before shuffling this unsuspecting female off to a maze of hallways and endless rooms - to be groped and compressed... the dreaded mammogram. A necessary evil part of women's health care.

Mid-30 year old women swing their tiny hips into the office for their 'base line' as directed by their trusted physician. The appointment is squeezed between their massage and tennis lessons. Easy enough - they won't be back for another five or six years... after there is a small bon fire on their birthday pastry. They flash a whitened smile, flip their perfectly coiffed hair and move on to their next mani-pedi appointment.

The annual visit begins after 40 years. These women are older, jaded and could care less about traipsing around in a less-than-adequate pink gown. No padding, support or underwire is available to assist vanity at this point. You can no longer tuck the excess mammary glands into your waistband to cover up the sag. No more pretending.

First there is the physical exam. Sitting with your arms up over your head while a nurse seeks out visual imperfections. Any unoccupied staff is called in for a consultation and - excuse me - but are the muffled giggles really necessary. Point and laugh out loud and get it over with! Your arms are quaking and all of the blood has dropped from your hands which now feel like they are being stuck be needles. Feel the burn...

At last - a chance to lay down - shake the feeling back into your arms. You can exhale the breath you've been holding to make your weakened stomach look somewhat normal. This same nurse has successfully managed to substitute the fluid in her hands for ice water and commences 'feeling' for trouble spots. Across, over, up, down, circles, lines, in, out - repeat. You have a bad flashback to that awkward date a bizillion years ago!

You convince the nurse you are diligently doing the same procedure on yourself every month while showering just like the guide recommends. Some are even able to say it with a straight face. If there is a fibroid or cyst the session will start over while the left and right sides are compared - they should be mirrored.

Finally a chance to sit by yourself and contemplate, usually in a highly air conditioned room on a cold vinyl seat. Suddenly a young 20-something mammography tech bounces into the room, pony tail flipping behind her, to tell you 'come on down' in her favorite game show host impression.

Now the fun begins. You are situated to stand in front of a streamline pole with paddles set at multiple angles. You are required to stretch on the tips of your toes because the tech hasn't noticed you aren't quite as tall as the person who was just before you. You reach your arm across the paddle, grasp hold of a handle - but don't clench - and lay your sensitive tissue on the cold plastic surface. The tech reaches with her gloved hand and grabs more tissue from your chest and brings down the top 'shelf' to form a vise like grip over your boob - says 'hold still but let me know when it gets painful' - which occurred about a minute ago. The upper paddle is cranked down the top another 3 inches. Stunned, you look down at the pancake of breast between the clear plastic paddles and find it hard to believe you are attached. However you can feel the metal of the machine digging into your rib cage and underarm. The tech says 'take a deep breath and hold' - disappears behind her radiation-free protective screen and takes the image. Thankfully the pressure of the paddles automatically releases. Free at last! You take a deep breath and sigh in relief. You are a survivor! Not so fast...

You still have to endure a 2nd matching image and another pair of compressions coming at you from the side (rumor has it these second compressions are only necessary to restore the breast to it's original shape).

Yes, it's a necessary part of health care. Ranks right up there with pap smears and blood draws in popularity. I'm sure men have their own horror stories about prostate exams. Hey guys - if you are looking for sympathy it's in the dictionary between...

In all seriousness - we joke about mammograms. I saw something that might have been prevented if treated in a timely fashion. A patient hadn't had any health exams in 14 years. She only came in because her husband was being laid off and they are losing their health insurance. A sure sign of the times but I digress. The RN discovered a lump. Examining the images it was certain to be cancerous. Even the lymphnodes under her arm are in question. The patient will no doubt lose her breast and endure months of chemo and radiation treatments. This very well could have been prevented with an annual mammogram and knowledge of the grants and financial assistance programs available to help with healthcare.

Please know I have great respect for victims of cancer and their families. I wonder if I would be able to find their strength. May God be with every one.

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