Story Time – Barium? Damn Near Killed ‘Em!


Look. I’m not going to apologize for that amazing title. Just make your peace with it and let’s keep this story moving along.

Ah, yes. But I was speaking of garments not fit for covering all the necessary parts and of waiting rooms that were the last sort where I’d want to be doing any waiting. It must be nice to just move to the next paragraph and the radiologist shows up.

Anyway, the radiologist showed up not long after I’d erected a makeshift couch out of three separate chairs and a pile of hospital gowns. There was no clock there, despite a loud ticking coming from somewhere very close by. If I hadn’t been so bored, that probably should have bothered me more than it did…

I made my way down the hall and onto my backside in another room. Here I was asked a number of questions that probably had more accurate answers in my medical charts – everything from when I was first diagnosed to the extremely long and complicated names for the parts of me the surgeon had taken out. I distinctly remember being asked if I’d had surgery before. I said I had. The radiologist stopped and raised an eyebrow, “It’s important to be accurate with this. You’re sure?”

Pretty sure,” I told him, as though I might rethink a half-month hospital stay and three month recovery period and realize it had been something else entirely. Trust me when I say that once you’ve had invasive surgery, you would never mistake it for anything else.

(Though, to be fair, I know he was just filling out a form – one he certainly didn’t make fifteen questions too long.)

I should clarify the problem here. Those without a long medical history might take it for granted, having only to remember that “one time they had bad strep and almost had their tonsils taken out.” At a certain point, very sick people have had so many things wrong with them that they actually start forgetting some of them. From a mental health standpoint, it’s probably a good thing. From the standpoint of filling out medical forms correctly…not so much.

In any case, pleasantries aside, we moved onto the first images. He had me lie down and alternate between holding my breath and breathing normally in a way that I’ve always found very jarring during imaging tests. I’d be told to breathe in, hold it, breathe normally, hold it and occasionally let out breaths I’d yet to take. Just as I began to wonder if I’d be the first person to pass out during the world’s worst game of “Simon says,” we were finished.

I was sent back to the waiting room. The wall ticked loudly. I waited.

A doctor came to get me because he had to sign off on the preliminary pictures of my insides before we got started. He seemed confused by something. Again, for those who don’t associate with doctors frequently, this generally isn’t a good sign.

“There are…abnormalities,” he said, looking at the images from a second test. The words didn’t help my breathing issues. “Abnormalities” tends to be code for, “There’s something wrong inside you. But the upside is I have no idea what it is.”

“Is that bad?” I asked from the table.

“No. It’s just…hm.” Shockingly, I didn’t find his explanation reassuring.

He held the image negatives up to one set of lights and then the next. Then he looked down at the screen. I wondered why he need physical copies when he could just look at a screen. Hospitals, apparently, hadn’t made good strides towards the “paperless office.”

“Aside from the Crohn’s, is there something…wrong with your intestine, that you know of?” he asked.

“I don’t know, doctor who’s literally using magic to look at them right now,” I said, a bit testily. “You tell me.”

Cocking his head far to one side to look at the screen – the one possible situation where it would have been better to look at the physical copy – he nodded. “Well, I guess we’ll know better once you’ve got the barium down. It’s just that there’s a section of your intestine missing.”

“Is it the terminal ileum?” I asked, dazzling my readers with my medical knowledge. “I had surgery. It’s supposed to be missing. I already know about that.”

“No,” he said, in a comment so ominous he should have taken off his glasses to deliver it. “Another part. About half of the lower intestine, actually.”

That….I didn’t know.” I wasn’t sure of the “hearing bad news with glasses” protocol anyway. And the last thing I wanted to do was make a guess and look foolish. Luckily, I suppose, I wasn’t wearing mine at the time.

I went back to the waiting room. The wall kept ticking. I pondered whether or not the wall and I could switch tasks for a bit. I would tick. And it could wait and maybe be dying. But walls, in addition to being crummy ways to keep out immigrants, are crummy conversationalists, too.

(Oh, snap – politics!)

“Drink this,” a man said, handing me a 20-ounce cup of something. I was finished by the time he reached the door. I made a note to make sure the person handing me strange drinks was a doctor before inhaling it next time, but I was too distracted.

It was only as I was staring at the dregs in the bottom of the Styrofoam cup that I realized the full and unpleasant scope of what I’d just granted an entry visa to my body. Seeing as it would be fairly pointless to ask if you’ve ever drank barium, since you can’t answer me, I’ll just explain it to everyone. First, imagine drinking a cup of white house paint. Actually, that’s pretty much it.

Except, in a head-to-head flavor competition between house paint and barium, I’m not sure barium would even take a podium spot.

“You all right?” the radiologist asked when he returned.

I had at least three problems. Since a stomach full of barium seemed like the least of these and I doubted he knew how to fix the television, I opted to ask about my erstwhile insides. “The doctor seems concerned. Or confused. Either way, that makes me concerned.” I hesitated, before quickly adding, “And confused.” I wasn’t sure where half of my insides could just go if they weren’t in me anymore. It seemed like something I’d want to know.

“You’re fine,” he assured me. “We had to look at the charts from your surgery. Apparently the surgeon rearranged a lot of your insides. They aren’t where they’d normally be.”

“That…actually still sounds pretty bad.”

The radiologist shrugged. “Not as bad as whatever you were thinking, I bet.” It was a good point. And when he clarified that this test was likely to be as excruciatingly routine as a test could be, I felt oddly better. Certainly not good, given the five hours of alternating waiting and imaging ahead of me. (It was done in such a way that I couldn’t even sleep.) But boredom and impending death are fairly distinct flavors of dread.

“All right. So what happens next?” I asked.

“What happens next is that you’ll want to drink that as fast as you can,” he explained, pointing to the cup in my hand. He launched into a vivid explanation of exactly how unpleasant the barium concoction was and why it was nonetheless entirely necessary to choke it down anyway. I listened politely until he finished by setting a hard limit of “absolutely no longer than fifteen minutes.”

“And what happens after I finish it? Because I already did.”

“My God,” he said, not even hiding a grimace behind the mask of medical professionalism doctors usually used to dismiss horrible things they’d seen. “That stuff’s like…white house paint. Only without the flavor.”

I muttered something about stealing his description if I ever turned this into a blog.

“Okay…well…you have a second one to drink, too. You’ll want to go easy on that one. If you drink another one too fast, you’ll empty your entire stomach,” he instructed, shaking his head in awe of my very specific skill in rapidly drinking paint and/or suspensions of alkaline metals. And when he gave me the second cup, he seemed to watch me carefully to make sure I wasn’t some sort of hardcore addict looking for his barium fix.

I told him he didn’t need to worry. My stomach and gag reflex were making a strong case for not drinking the second cup at all. The radiologist’s objections were largely redundant by that point.

“I just needed to be sure. I’ve never seen someone drink one of those down in under ten seconds like that.” He smiled, readying what he probably thought was going to be a joke. “You weren’t in a fraternity, were you?”

“I was, actually.” And, in hindsight, if I could keep down Banker’s Club – a vodka I can only assume was triple distilled before being filtered through someone’s asshole – it made sense that I could keep down something with half the unpleasant aftertaste and none of the burning.

“Is that so?” he said, scribbling something on his chart. I can only assume there wasn’t a question he’d forgotten about fraternal status. “I was in a fraternity myself.” He said the letters. I forgot them. (Sorry.) “I imagine you’ve got some pretty crazy stories to tell from those days, huh?”

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I did. I nodded as the memories came flooding back. “I’ve got a few stories from back in those days,” I said, as the camera began to pan out on the scene. “And from the look of it, I haven’t got much else to do besides talking for the next five hours.” Cue that dreamy piano thing to indicate someone’s about to have a flashback.

“Yeah, well,” the radiologist grunted, abruptly halting the scene transition. He filled out the last of whatever he’d been writing. “I’ve got work to do, so I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”

“Oh, okay. Right.” I folded my arms as I watched him leave, muttering about how I’d show him and tell the entire story in a blog later. He hadn’t heard me. I was sure, nonetheless, that if he had, he’d have been so burned.

In any case, buckle up. We’re headed back to 2001. And I’m already bad enough at finishing short stories quickly. One that lasts two decades might take awhile.


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