Early Monday morning, when Mom and I walked into the Radiology Department, a uniformed tech came over to us. “Here you are. The doctor arrived ahead of schedule today, so we can already get started. You can have a seat over there, Mrs. Hawley. Or, you might want to go to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. This test takes about an hour.”
It’s impossible to adequately express the physical reaction her cheerful words to Mom wrought in my body. Truly, the admonition to abstain from any oral intake had been warranted. I’d not left the waiting area and I already wanted to throw up.
I changed into the cotton, open-back patient gown and let the tech help me onto the cold, hard x-ray table. She brought me a flannel blanket to make up for the absence of my own long-sleeved flannel shirt and blue-jeans. It’s always cold in the rooms that have radiology equipment.
After several control x-rays had been shot and processed to confirm positioning, the neurosurgeon entered the room. I hadn’t expected to see Dr. Schultz until the results became available. Accompanied by the radiologist, the two specialists discussed the numerical settings and all sorts of other too-technical for me stuff.
“Go ahead and sit up on the edge of the table,” Dr. Schultz said.
I did as I had been told, all the while wondering what in the world for. X-rays had to be taken with the film near the head, not hanging out in the open air. Still, I let the tech help me arrange the blanket over my legs, as I felt the cold wetness of the antiseptic gauze wipe across the lumbar region of my spine.
“I thought you said I didn’t have to have another spinal tap,” I said, feeling the second wipe of the fluid now dripping down my back. The tech reached around and soaked the excess up with a dry gauze sponge.
“You’re not having another spinal tap. We use the same area for this test, but we don’t take anything out for the lab. Dr. Roberts* did that last week.”
“Then, what are you doing? This feels the same as the prep for the spinal tap. What are you going to put in there? Shouldn’t I be lying down?”
I felt his gloved hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s just air. We put a little air in the same place that the other test puts dye. Then, you can lie down and we’ll take the pictures of what’s going on inside. Just relax so we can get it done.”
I felt the stings of the Novocain in my back. “Should I tell you which leg feels the sharp pain and how far down my leg it goes?”
I’d always done that for Dr. Roberts so he knew which way to move the needle to hit the exact position. In fact, I’d had so many spinal taps that the directional reports contained only a couple of words—right knee or left mid-calf—meaning the pain shot from my back down to the knee on the right or the mid-calf on the left. Dr. Schultz just grunted, but when the pain shot down my leg to my ankle, I spoke.
“You don’t need to tell me that. I’ve been doing these things longer than you’ve been alive.”
“You might have but not on me. This is the first time you’ve done it on me. Can’t I lie down? It’s hard to put my body in a ball and still stay on the edge of the table.”
Another stab, for which I shouted out the directional clue. He may not take my guidance, preferring to keep his pride intact, but I’d be hanged if I’d keep quiet about his mistakes.
“Hold still. I prefer the patient sitting. Just hold still and keep quiet.”
Finally, I felt the pop and knew he’d found the right spot. I also noted that, while he sounded like he ignored my clues, he responded to them in the same way Dr. Roberts had. That agony over, I relaxed—but not for long.
I felt the student tech who’d come to observe tighten her fingers over my clenched fist and knew something was about to happen. “Please, just tell me wha-a--“
Before I could complete my request, a thick, white-hot flash of burning steel shot up my back and filled my head with excruciating flames. One of my legs moved spontaneously and I felt the searing heat flash down to my knee.
“Keep your leg still,” the surgeon said.
“It moved itself,” I said through gritted teeth. “Down to my knee.”
The surgeon swore and moved the large needle. The relief to my knee was immediate.
“Get the first set!” he said with obvious annoyance.
They grabbed my shoulders and put me flat on my back in the exact spot they’d marked out on the table. Suddenly, all the heat rushed up from my back to join the nearly exploding fire inside my skull. Reflexively, tears poured down my eyes and pooled on the table.
The gang of professionals left me, except for the student who clung to my hand like she was the patient needing comfort. I heard the muffled communication behind the glass control booth, but couldn’t make out the words. Then, the doctors emerged to pull me up again on the edge of the table.
The second try at introducing the huge needle went better. The doctor listened to my now-whispered clues. However, the injection of air into my spine didn’t go better. The pain gave my mouth a mind of its own.
I bore the agony with shouts so loud, I wondered if they heard me in the rooms above this Department. Before I realized what had happened, I heard someone say, “What language is that? Isn’t she an American?”
Another voice said, “Is there anyone here who can translate for us? What’s she saying?”
Through the pain, I forced myself to listen. “Praying,” I said, croaking out the word between my own shouts.
“Anyone understand what she just said? It sounded like English to me,” the radiologist said.
I repeated the word, trying to gain more volume. The student nearest me said, “I think she said she’s praying.”
“Okay, we don’t need to know what language then; it doesn’t matter what she’s saying,” said Dr. Schultz.
I had switched to shouting my tormented pleas to my Heavenly Father in the unknown tongue that had become a part of my personal prayer language five years earlier. I had not been aware of the transition but I rejoiced that my inner being had responded in the only way that would help.
God could get me through this with my mind intact. Until that point, I felt like I’d surely lose it before the test had been completed. The pneumoencephalogram proved far worse than the arteriogram I’d had weeks earlier. And to think, the only reason I’d agreed to have this test was to get a release home.
Once I’d recovered, they’d better be able to show me the outline of a tumor or I’d be on the road home, period. No more tests to prove that I’d recovered as much as possible already.