The ouch potato. Gene is unnerved by some medical tests


(Eric Shansby)

You probably think that the most uncomfortable diagnostic procedure a doctor can perform on you, depending on the configuration of your genitalia, is either a finger-intrusive prostate exam or a speculum-intensive pelvic exam. I once also thought that, back when I, too, was young, healthy and stupid.

But then, one day a few years ago, a doctor informed me that what he was going to do would hurt a little. (No, in doctorspeak “this will hurt a little” does not mean “this will hurt a lot.” Doctorspeak for “this will hurt a lot” is “there may be some discomfort.” It turns out that “this will hurt a little” means that the procedure will cause you to exert all your energy merely to avoid soiling yourself.)

Gene Weingarten is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and writes "Below the Beltway," a weekly humor column that is nationally syndicated. View Archive

After this warning, the doctor instructed me to look away, which I only pretended to do, which is why I saw that he placed a spring-loaded weapon against my rib cage. It was, essentially, a stiletto. He drew it back like a slingshot (at this point I did look away), fired the blade two inches into my body, and then drew it back out. I cannot tell you how long the agony persisted because time got distorted by that soiling-avoidance protocol. This was back when I had liver problems, and that was the way doctors did a liver biopsy.

I no longer have liver problems. Now I have nerve problems. And I can proudly report that the liver biopsy is only the second most awful thing medical professionals ever did to me. The most awful was just three weeks ago, when a doctor informed me that what he was about to do was so pleasant that most patients are disappointed when it is over, insist on it being repeated multiple times, and afterward buy him a present in gratitude. Then the doctor chuckled winningly. I had never before heard of sarcasm as a tool to deliver a pain euphemism, and as a humor professional I was impressed. I was still busy trying to assess its methodological effectiveness when the doctor inserted the first needle, and the soiling-avoidance protocol took over and that was that for analytically useful thought.

I’ve been having some numbness in my extremities, and this was a test to assess the conditions of my nerves. To do it, a doctor stabs an electrified needle into the center of a muscle, which hurts a great deal, as you can imagine, but seems bearable so long as you keep the muscle relaxed. Alas, then the doctor instructs you to clench the muscle, which has the expected effect (it would be as if you had a big splinter on the sole of your foot, and were instructed to hop on it) and then the doctor yells at you to clench harder.

This process was repeated, by my count, 18 times, with the doctor keeping up a cheerful monologue all the while. Sarcasm ceded to enthusiasm. (“Now I’m going into the side of your foot. This one’s gonna be really nasty!”)

When I apologized for my whimpering and writhing, he told me that whimpering and writhing were among the bravest reactions he had encountered, and began to tell war stories about people less stolid than I. One woman announced ominously that she was an attorney, and insisted on keeping her attaché case beside her, presumably in case the doctor forgot her occupation. With each needle, she screamed at the top of her lungs, spreading terror through the waiting room, as though this were the Hanoi Hilton in 1967. The doctor told her that this was unacceptable behavior and she would have to find another way of dealing with the pain; at the next needle insertion, she kicked him in the head.

As I write this, I am still waiting for the test results. They might say I need more tests, or, if I am lucky, they might say I will die first.

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