A Tough Act To Swallow

Nick Burn is a freelance writer, husband, father of three, engineer, teacher, and webmaster for the Canadian Catholic Information Network. In his spare time (hah!), he enjoys camping, skiing and reading.

A couple of years ago, I had a scary episode involving my heart. At least, I think it involved my heart. It was hard to tell.

I was standing in the kitchen trying to come up with some new excuses to avoid doing some housework when my body, completely of its own accord, developed a searing pain in the middle of my chest.

“Dear, there is a searing pain in the middle of my chest,” I told my wife.

She was not impressed and thought I was just trying to get out of doing some housework. It only took a couple of minutes to convince her otherwise and she dialed 911. It only took a few more minutes for the 911 attendants to also confirm that I was having real chest pains, but by this time, they (the chest pains) were gone. However, I was strongly urged to go see our doctor.

So I drove myself over to our clinic and recounted my harrowing tale to the nurse. They said that I should go to the emergency room at our hospital. They also berated me for having driven myself over. “You could have had an accident and hurt yourself, or even worse, hurt somebody else,” the nurse said. Comforted by this sentiment, the nurse told me to arrange for someone to drive me to the hospital and shooed me out the door. Personally, I think that the clinic staff did not want to have one of their patients undergo a fatal death experience on their watch.

I rang up my brother-in-law, explained to him that I needed a ride to the hospital and he was there in a flash. When we arrived at the emergency room, the staff was immediately angry with me because they were expecting me to arrive in an ambulance. Apparently I was breaking all the rules of the emergency medical transportation unions.

A crack team of emergency medical professionals descended upon me and had me strapped into a gurney with several hundred probes and meters stuck to every exposed region of my body. When there was not enough exposed skin, they would expose some more with their emergency medical pinking shears.

Thus it was that my wife and kids found me as they crowded into the emergency ward. My children expressed their concern for my health by examining all the wires and beeping electronic machines with the same intensity that they use to play Nintendo. “Dad looks like a Borg,” they intoned. My wife displayed her concern by swatting the kids away from the machines.

So it went for approximately two hours with the occasional emergency medical person sauntering in to first frown at the machines, then to frown at me. At last, they declared that there was nothing wrong me and that everything appeared to be normal. Nonetheless, just to be on the safe side, and to ensure that I could not escape the clutches of modern medical health care, they told me to make an appointment at another clinic for a “barium swallow.”

I was not at ease with the idea of swallowing barium. I distinctly remember that Barium is an element from the periodic table – symbol Ba – and is known for its ability to be radioactive. I also recall from my comic book reading days that swallowing radioactive elements is usually associated with attaining freakish superhuman powers like being able to climb walls and bounce around like a rubber ball. Hmmm, I wonder if my kids have been swallowing radioactive elements behind my back.

Anyway, I was not exactly thrilled with this whole barium thing. But in Canada, it is a federal offence to not submit yourself to expensive medical procedures recommended by your doctor or emergency medical room staff.

When I arrived at the clinic for my swallow, I was ushered into a small room and handed a pink gown made out of tissue paper. “Sorry, most of our clientele are women who come here for ultrasounds,” was the feeble explanation for this particular embarrassment. So I disrobed and fought myself into the gown. And not a moment to soon, for just then, a nurse came into the room with a small vial full of little white crystals. She also handed me a teeny-weeny plastic cup with about a thimbles worth of water.

The nurse said, “I want you to toss all these white crystals as far back as you can down your throat. Then chase them with this pathetic little cup of water. The water will make the crystal fizz, producing a lot of gas that will expand your stomach so that we can get a better view of all of your internal organs. You have to swallow the crystals and water as quick as can be, and do not, under any circumstances, burp.”

Well, when the water hit these crystals, they behaved like Alka Seltzer on steroids. Swallowing this seething mass of fizz was like trying to swallow a ball of hair. Of course, the natural urge was to burp ferociously, but I had been forbidden to burp. This was like telling Mount Vesuvius not to erupt. But I managed to keep everything down and was feeling pretty proud of myself. Then a second nurse came in with a bottle of liquid chalk. Of course, it wasn’t actually a bottle of liquid chalk; this was far worse. Liquid chalk would have been refreshing. I was told that this was the actual barium swallow.

Down went the barium when anothernurse came in with another little vial of white fizz crystals and a thimble of water. She told me to repeat what I had done with the first vial. I was beginning to feel that this was an elaborate prank and that the next nurse to come in would ask me to swallow a bag full of live gerbils.

After this third swallow, I felt much like Jupiter, a giant ball of gas.

Another nurse did come in, but this one guided me into a small room with an enormous scary looking machine. She strapped me onto a vertical metal wall that had conveniently been recently stored in a meat freezer. Then she scurried from the room and told me to keep still.

Suddenly, without warning, the wall I was strapped onto rotated 90 degrees and became a horizontal table. The table then slid inside a large machine where a device that looked like something out of “War of the Worlds” began moving back and forth along my body. I then emerged from the other side of the machine and was placed on the vertical again. The nurse emerged from her hiding spot and set me free, informing me that they were done with me, that I could change back into my street clothes, and that there were no circumstances under which I could sue them in civil court.

I found my clothes, got dressed, and crumpled up my pink gown into a tiny paper wad and deposited in a trashcan to be recycled into several new pink gowns. On my way out I happened to pass by a mirror. The barium chalk had left two chalky pink lines rising up from the corners of my mouth. I looked like the Joker from the Batman movie. Trying not to get angry with the clinic staff for not informing me of my jokerly appearance, I washed my face in their drinking fountain.

“We will call you only if there’s a problem with the test results,” said the nurse as I stomped off.

This really irks me. Why do medical professionals assume that their patients are not having anxiety-induced strokes waiting to hear the results from their tests? So after a week of not hearing anything, I called the clinic and asked about the results from my test.

“Ah, yes, the Jokerman. Your tests were negative,” said the nurse.

“Negative in a negative way, or negative in a positive way,” I replied.

I had clearly confused the nurse. “Negative in that the results of your test were positive, meaning that there is nothing wrong.”

Feeling positively negative about the whole experience, I thanked the nurse, thanked God that I was all right and took a calcium tablet to calm my stomach.

Calcium is another element from the periodic table – symbol Ca – that is not known for its radio activeness. Thank heavens for small mercies.

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