Shortly after my surgery, I receive an offhand recommendation from my oncology nurse to get a CT, or CAT scan, which is a special X-ray that produces cross-sectional images. Since there had been some worry over my tumor marker numbers creeping up pre-surgery, the nurse automatically referred me. I obliged with no idea what was in store.
Upon checking in for my first ever CT scan, I'm informed of the need to drink contrast every 15 minutes for the next hour before the test. I'm offered a variety of flavors of thick, toxic looking stuff in plastic bottles marked "Barium Sulfate Smoothie" - appetizing stuff, starting right with the name.I select vanilla and am pretty violently cringing, gagging, and shuddering through the first cup - as in, the first 1/4 of what I'm supposed to drink. I look around the waiting room instinctually, as though to commiserate with anyone else brandishing Barium; my widened eyes search for someone to give a “Can you believe this stuff?” nod to. No one else is suffering the smoothie at the moment though.
Like a child, I reach up and plug my nose with every gulp and regret having to let go to breath; as soon as air hits my tongue, my shoulders are scrunching up and I'm involuntarily shaking my head from side to side. Wow, this is some "smoothie."My sister-in-law Jamie, who has kindly accompanied me on this adventure, keeps moving the trash can closer, obviously fearing I’m going to vomit. Oh no, there’s no way I’m letting this stuff come back up.
Just before the 30-minute mark, when it's time to down a third cup, even though I've barely finished the second, Jamie and I go back to reception to swap the second of the two bottles of vanilla for another flavor. We ask our barista/receptionist for his recommendation and head back to the waiting area with a “mochachino.” I'm afraid it's going to put me off of coffee forever, but no need to worry as it tastes absolutely nothing like coffee. He is right though, it is slightly better.
50 minutes in and I'm pretty drastically behind on finishing both bottles. I'm alternating between rationalizing body mass ratios to ounces necessary and reverting to childish impulses to hide the unfinished bottles.
At 5 minutes till the hour, the doors slide open and a radiologist appears wielding my chart. She waves me back and doesn't even glance at my 2 half-full bottles. Apparently Barium Sulfate brings out the immature in me because I'm grinning like a child who narrowly escaped getting caught misbehaving. Hee, hee, she didn't even notice I didn’t finish it all.
As soon I'm through the door, childish impulses as well as hopeful rationalizations vanish, and I simply mention that I didn't drink it all. "No problem; you don't need all of it. I'm sure you were tortured enough," the long-haired radiologist says with a smile.What? That's it? No sending me back out with admonishments? No failed test? Alright!
Wait, could I have gotten away with drinking less than I did?
The comically uncomfortable ordeal from the waiting room is about to fade into insignificance. A real and serious torture is lying in wait ahead.
I change into a gown, ease myself onto yet another examination table hanging out of a large, expensive-looking machine, and am informed the second part of the contrast is administered through IV. Oh no, not my veins! Just give me another bottle of smoothie. Seriously, I’ll take anything to avoid involving my veins.The veins in my arms are small, roll when pricked, and have been pretty severely taxed over the 6 chemo infusions. My left arm can no longer be used, since I've now had lymph nodes removed on that side and so it’s at high risk for lymphodema. This limits me to the poor option that is my right arm, which has already taken a pretty hefty beating. I had a chemo infusion go bad in this arm; the poison leaked and a whole part of my forearm is still discolored and numb. Then there's the busted vein on the top of my right hand, where the IV was in for 3 days while I was in the hospital for surgery.
All around, I’m not in an ideal candidate for either (A) getting a large needle into a vein or (B) keeping it there without the vein collapsing when fluid is pushed through it.
1 radiologist, 2 radiologist, 3. 1 vein-finding light, 2 warm packs, 3 sheets. I'm still cold, dehydrated, and possessing uncooperative veins with only one usable arm. 1 prick, 2 prick, 3.... 6, 7 and still no vein that's walls don't collapse when they start injecting the contrast fluid through it.
No one wants to be stuck with a needle and of course not repeatedly; a digging, damaging needle.Lying there on that table, I am not a person. They don't see me. I'm just an arm - a difficult prick that might reflect poorly on them if they fail. Just an arm. Meanwhile, the rest of me is shaking, starting to cry, and wishing I were back in the waiting room drinking toxic smoothies while Jamie shoves the trash can at me.
I try to be strong. I turn my head away from the white coats hovering above me and count the knobs on the cupboards. And then I count them again in Italian. I get halfway through Annie's "Tomorrow." When I lose the focus to come up with lyrics or languages, I simply stare at the cupboards and chant desperately, "1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3. 1, 2, 3" over and over again.
With every locatable vein tried and failed, the technicians finally give up and run the scan without that portion of contrast. Their prodding efforts are for naught.I'm so glad my oncologist's nurse recommended I get this fairly-ineffective test, just as a precaution. Barium Sulfate and vein exploration is a recipe for fun by any count.