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Welcome to the Colonoscopy Club or How Not to Sh*t Your Pants on the Subway
“Have you scheduled your colonoscopy yet?” I-Hsing texted me.
No, I thought. I don’t want to. Leave me alone.
“Not yet,” I wrote. “I will. I promise.”
A few weeks earlier I’d admitted to I-Hsing that I had not yet had a colonoscopy. At 51. A year and a half behind the recommended timeline. Actually, scratch that. Nearly seven years behind, because the goalpost had moved to 45 right before I turned 50. I-Hsing decided then and there it was her mission to get me to schedule the exam. That might be true friendship, but friendship can be annoying when you’re in deep avoidance mode.
In my defense I had been in and out of doctors a lot in the past three years. I’d been freezing half-naked on multiple exam tables, navigating through a misdiagnosis and back pain and inflammation post hernia surgery, and I didn’t want to step back into the grind of appointments, or face how vast and empty the space felt around me as I went through it all solo.
Still, a few weeks after my confession, with I-Hsing’s voice loud in my head, I asked my doctor for a referral.
“There isn’t a closer option than Mount Sinai?” I asked as my doctor filed the script.
“They’re who we’re connected with,” she said. “If you have a gastroenterologist who can refer you elsewhere, I’m happy to give you what you need for that.”
I shook my head no. It would be another year before I got the exam if multiple steps were involved. “Mount Sinai is fine,” I said.
Although it wasn’t. I live in the depths of South Brooklyn, and Mount Sinai is way uptown. A good hour by subway. All while my bowels would be trying to violently clear themselves. I didn’t want to be the person who shat their pants on the subway. Or anywhere, really.
But I called and set my appointment for September, three months away.
“You’ll be happy to hear I did it,” I texted I-Hsing.
“Yay!” She replied with a gif of men in hazmat suits diligently cleaning the inside of a bright pink colon with brooms.
I’m a prepper. I learn everything I can in advance. But the only way this was going to happen was if I pretended it wasn’t happening at all.
I proceeded to immediately block the appointment from my mind. So much so that I didn’t even open the instructions from the doctor to check what I’d need to do. Which is not like me at all. I’m a prepper. I learn everything I can in advance. But the only way this was going to happen was if I pretended it wasn’t happening at all.
And that’s exactly what I did until a week before my procedure, when I had no choice but to finally read the instructions. All seven pages of them. When I got to the part about pouring an 8.3 ounce bottle of Miralax into 64 ounces of Gatorade and drinking it in two doses, I said, out loud, to absolutely no one, “Are you fucking kidding me?” My cat got ¼ tsp of Miralax a day to stay regular. Even weighing nearly 14 times what he did, that was more than six months of cat doses. In 12 hours. This was going to get crazy.
The day before my procedure, when it came time to start the 24-hour, clear-liquid prep diet in earnest, I poured heated chicken bone broth into a mug, took a sip and nearly spat it out everywhere. It was like drinking dirt off a tire shop floor. The only way Gwyneth Paltrow was promoting this was if aliens had taken over her body. (Have aliens taken over her body??)
Plus, there was the caffeine situation. If I am anything, it is a matcha latte addict. But matcha sans latte is akin to drinking the tears of the heartbroken. The only small bit of light breaking through the irrational clouds of food anger that hung over me was the lime jello, the true star of the liquid prep diet, bringing back memories of the jello shots of my 20s.
And it wasn’t like the liquid situation got better. Come 6 p.m. I was mixing that sadistic workout punch of Miralax and Gatorade into a pitcher. Here we go, I thought, and drank it down in 3.5 glasses, timed ten minutes apart, as instructed.
The mixture was supposed to kick in within 30 to 60 minutes, setting off 5 to 10 “bowel movements” for the evening. I sat on my couch to watch Love is Blind 4: After the Altar which, if you haven’t watched it yet, don’t. I eyed the clock. My bowels were getting twisted up, but the episode ended and…nothing. I started another show, finished the episode and…still nothing. The clock was ticking away. Two hours had passed. Where was the poop I’d been promised?
I started Googling: How long should the prep liquid take to kick in? For some people it could take up to three hours, even four, Dr. Google replied. So I was okay. No need to worry. Although by four hours, it was recommended to call your doctor. It was already 8 p.m. There was no doctor available to call. The clock kept ticking, my gut kept roiling and…still nothing.
By 10 p.m. I was panicking. What if I hadn’t prepped right? What if I should have been on a low-fiber diet for days, which I was discovering some doctors recommended? What if I should have taken the prescription prep medicine instead?
And now I had a new fear: Even if I did start pooping, at this point my colon might not clear in time. I could be among the nearly 30% of people who have inadequate prep, and have to reschedule or do it all again. The doctor’s instructions recommended purchasing a saline enema from my local pharmacy if this happened, but Dr. Google said to send someone to get it because I could have sudden, explosive diarrhea. I was not waking up a neighbor to ask for this. And anyway, the store was closed. I cupped my face in my hands. Maybe if I’d done my homework I wouldn’t be sitting here, a knot forming heavy in my chest, that empty space opening up around me again, reminding me I was all alone.
By midnight, when there was nothing left to Google, and nothing more to do till morning, and not one more poop emoji I could bear to send the friends checking in and trying to calm me down, I went to bed, waking at 2 a.m. (still nothing!) and again at 4 a.m. This time things felt…different. I went to the bathroom and, wait, was that…YES!!! I did a small arm dance like a two-year-old succeeding with potty training. I gave myself a slew of imaginary gold stars.
“SUCCESS!!” I texted my friend Amy.
If there was any place that had witnessed people unexpectedly clearing their colons, it was Chipotle.
There was no sleep after that, although action was slow until I mixed the second dose at 6 a.m. Then the show began for real. No time delay. At one point, while prepping my bag for the hospital, I had to drop everything and book it down the hall to the bathroom, making it just in time. I was relieved everything was coming out, but now I was thinking about the subway ride.
“You should be done in time,” Amy texted.
“I don’t know. Nothing has gone on schedule yet,” I replied.
I started researching places where I could make pit stops en route, mentally mapping them. There was a Starbucks where I’d need to transfer trains at 14th street. Another one at Jay Street. Amy owned an eyeglass store on Smith Street in Cobble Hill.
“If I needed to use your bathroom, would that be okay?” I texted her.
“OMG. Yes,” she replied.
Finally, things began to slow down. There were 10 minutes between movements — I had started thinking of them as parts of a bowel symphony — and then 15 minutes, and 20. If the place were closer, I would have felt confident. But an hour? It would be touch and go. Especially since, just as I was about to head out the door, I had to book it back to the bathroom.
I wore black. All black. Easy to pull down joggers. A simple T-shirt. Slip on sneakers. If shit happened, I did not want there to be visual proof. I got on the subway, sat like any other underdressed commuter, and read my book. At the stop for Amy’s store, I did an internal check in. All good. At the next stop…still fine. I thought things might end up okay until the train neared Jay Street and I felt my colon convulse. I was through the doors the second the train hit the station and booked it to Starbucks.
But, damnit, they didn’t have a bathroom. I spotted an Au Bon Pain sign across the courtyard and walk-ran there only to find it was an empty storefront. I turned left and saw…Chipotle.
If there was any place that had witnessed people unexpectedly clearing their colons, it was Chipotle. I got in just in time for the final exodus.
Even with that, I was only five minutes late to my appointment and was greeted by a nurse ready to bring me in. There was a huge absorbent pad on the stretcher where I was meant to lie for the procedure.
“That’s not an encouraging sign,” I said, making him laugh.
My anesthesiologist came to speak with me, and my gastroenterologist. Both were calm, comforting and confidence-inducing. I would be in good hands.
“I’m looking for the 10-year clearance,” I told the doctor, which was the best result one could hope for, being so healthy you didn’t need to do this again for a decade.
“We’ll see what we can do,” he replied.
I was hooked up to an IV, wheeled into the procedure room, and put under in what felt like minutes. I came to less than an hour later, groggy yet strangely rested. The best nap of your life, several friends commented later, and it was true. Despite the lack of sleep the night before, I felt good. Beside me on a small rolling table were juice and peanut butter crackers. My first solid food in 29 hours. They tasted sweet, of relief and pending freedom, as if a snack before the end of the school day.
The report from my procedure was also on the table. I flipped through it to find pictures of various parts of my colon, all looking as pink and healthy as the one in the gif I-Hsing had sent me. They’d even rated my prep: 9/9. I’d passed with shining colors.
I got dressed and moved to a bank of chairs, the doctor coming over to sit next to me. He was relaxed, his work over, my procedure a breeze for him. Both of us leaned back casually as if sipping cocktails while overlooking an ocean rather than staring at various women on stretchers waking up from anesthesia.
“Looks like it all went well,” I said.
“Yeah, it went great. No issues. You’re in good shape.”
“And I got the 10-year reprieve.”
“You did,” he said smiling, and then asked what I did for a living.
I felt a small frisson. Not of attraction per se, though he was a good-looking man (if a good looking married man who struck me as being loyal), but of that easy camaraderie and relaxed humor I often felt with a man I’d been intimate with. And we had been, in a way. I had been naked, after all, and I wasn’t self conscious about it like I would have been in my 20s or 30s. It was simply refreshing to feel this kinship. To be out the other side and declared healthy. To be done with what I had dreaded and put off for so long. And, in the end, once everything got moving, it hadn’t been that bad — 8/10 I’d recommend and do it again. Minus the bone broth.
“Well,” he said, putting his hands on his knees and standing up. “All best.”
“Same to you.”
I went to the waiting room to find my brother, who’d come to escort me home, and we wandered out into the lingering summer heat. I steered us toward Starbucks and ordered a matcha latte, savoring it slowly on the train home, not feeling like I had to go to the bathroom even once.