I hate needles. And the last time I had anesthesia I was sick for a week (okay, so it was 1964 and they gave me ether and anesthesia has come a long way since then--still, I was worried). So the parts of the colonoscopy procedure I feared most weren't the usual ones people worry about. I hated the idea of getting stuck (with the needle) and I was dreading the anesthesia.
There was no question that I had to do this. My friend Janet McDonald died a year ago at age 53 from colon cancer. Janet was a fiercely alive women who overcame incredible challenges to build a life and career, first in law, then in print as a memoirist, and finally as the author of children's books (www.projectgirl.com).
One final message that Janet conveyed to all of her friends was that we had to get scoped. I don't believe in the afterlife, but Janet is not the kind of person you ignored in life and if there is an afterlife, she's not the kind of person you want haunting you. Weeks after her death I asked my doctor for a referral to a gastro guy.
For most of the past year I've kept the referral card from my doctor taped to the mirror over my desk. The rule is to go for your first colonoscopy at age 50, unless you have a family history of colon cancer and then it's 40 (or earlier if your doctor recommends it). I won't be 50 until November, but I decided to mark the anniversary of Janet's death by getting my test done last week.
Among my friends I'm one of the first to have had a colonoscopy and they all wanted to know what it was like. What they seemed to want to know most was that it wasn't as bad as they feared. Telling them what it was really like seems to have helped some of them overcome their fear--at least enough to make an appointment.
So in honor of Janet's life, and in the hope that I can help some of you get over your fear of getting a colonoscopy, I thought I'd share my experience. Of course every doctor does things a little differently, so your experience may not be exactly the same.
The prep. It's really unpleasant. For the exam your colon needs to be perfectly clean so that means a liquid diet that starts 24 hours before the test and a purge of your digestive system that begins the afternoon or evening before. You have to drink several glasses (I lost count) of an unpleasant tasting liquid (the citrus flavoring helps), but it wasn't the taste that I minded. It was having to drink so much and so quickly. By the end I couldn't drink another drop, even though I had one more glass to go.
A couple of hours later all of that liquid starts pouring through your digestive system with a force that's a little hard to imagine. As I said, they want you clean. And by 1:00 a.m., after repeated trips to the bathroom (I lost count), I was clean and exhausted. Unbelievably, I was thirsty, too, but you can't drink anything after midnight.
The next morning at the doctor's office, I met first with the anesthesiologist, who put a port in my arm for the IV anesthesia (less painful than getting a blood test--I don't know what I was so worried about!). Then the doctor came in to explain the procedure and had me sign the release form (some doctors require an intake meeting a week prior to discuss the procedure and the potential complications).
The doctor asked me to roll onto my side and draw my knees up to my chest. The anesthesiologist placed one of those oxygen tubes under my nose and then administered the anesthetic. I'd been told that the anesthetic was the best part and it was! I barely had time to say "goodnight" before I was out. And I mean, out! No sound. No dreams. No sensations of any kind until about 45 minutes later when I heard the nurse ask me how I was feeling. I was feeling like I'd just been on vacation!
I opened my eyes and for a moment I took stock. I was on my back, dressed in the gown I'd put on for the procedure (and my socks, which the nurse had suggested I keep on). There was cotton taped over the spot where the needle had been. And I was happy. So happy! And I hadn't even heard the exam's results (all clear).
I got dressed (slowly) and walked out to the waiting room under my own steam. My partner was waiting for me (you're required to have someone there to take you home). I sat for a moment and ate the banana I'd brought along (the best banana I'd ever eaten!) and then we went out for breakfast. I was a little loopy, but not at all tired.
The next day I felt perfectly normal, but I wasn't. I discovered that my brain was still fuzzy from the anesthesia when I found myself on the "B" train instead of the "C" and would up at West 4th Street and 6th Avenue instead of 23rd and 8th. (For those of you not familiar with NYC, that's not a huge mistake, but it's not one a life-long New Yorker is likely to make.) I had no idea how that could have happened and stood on the platform at West 4th Street for a few moments to get my bearings and to figure out what I needed to do to get home.
The momentary confusion on the subway was more amusing than frightening and was a reminder that all drugs come with side effects. Or maybe my friend Janet was just playing with me. I wouldn't put it past her.