I wrote the original version of this in 2007, but have revised it after a return visit to the same doctor for the same procedure a decade later…
I’m going to share a medical secret with you. It’s about having a colonoscopy, as I did yesterday.
When my physician first told me I’d have to have one, I was a little nervous, but I’ve reached the age where you’re supposed to get screened for cancer and other problems, so I was resigned to it. Fortunately, they didn’t find anything wrong. Even more fortunately, the whole hospital experience was a breeze.
What nobody told me was how un-breezy the day before was going to be. Remember, this is a procedure that tens of millions of people have had done. Two members of my extended family have had a colonoscopy within the last couple of years, but neither one of them — nor anyone else — ever shared with me the day-before warning. Since I’m sure you can’t count on your friends or family either, I’ll be the one to give you a heads-up.
The problem is that before the gastroenterologist goes exploring around in your colon with a camera on a tube inserted in your rear end, you have to be, um, as empty as possible. To achieve that, I couldn’t eat any solid food all day, and could only drink clear liquids, which for me meant nothing but water. Then, at 6pm that evening, I was to consume an entire bottle (six ounces) of an incredibly powerful liquid laxative, along with 48 ounces of water.
The stuff tastes absolutely disgusting, but it works fast. Beginning at 6:30pm, I began the first of several hurried visits to the bathroom. I’ll leave out the disgusting parts of this, which I’m sure you can imagine, but suffice it to say that it was clear how the rest of my evening was going to play out from that point on. I consider it one of the most unpleasant nights of my life — and that was only part one.
The instructions said that, for part two, I had to drink another bottle of the laxative, plus the same amount of water, five hours before my colonoscopy appointment. Since that was scheduled for 9:30am, I set the alarm for 4:30am. When it went off, I wasn’t very rested, since I’d continued to make those bathroom visits through much of the night. Still, I got up, downed the gross liquid (which at one point felt like it was going to come back up), and knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep again.
I was right. I stayed awake until it was time to go. Despite not eating anything for over 24 hours, I wasn’t hungry at all. My brain must have recognized that adding anything solid into this human sluice-gate system of mine, where whatever went in would be coming right back out, was not a pleasant prospect.
At 9:15am, my wife drove me to the hospital, and here’s where the easy part began. The staff at Barnes West were nice and efficient and had me ready to go within 15 minutes of my arrival. The toughest part was figuring out how to tie a bowtie knot behind my back on that backwards hospital gown (I actually was concerned with making sure that it was completely closed back there, until I remembered that the nursing staff was about to get a very good view of my butt, and it was just one of many they’d face that day).
Soon, gastroenterologist Dr. David Goran came in and explained what was going to happen during my colonoscopy. He asked if I had any questions, and when I didn’t, he said, “Okay, then we’ll see you later.” For a moment, I thought this meant he was leaving. Then I realized they were about to give me the general anesthesia. In the next moment, I was unconscious. In the moment after that, they were waking me up and he was telling me that everything had gone well and I was fine.
Because I wasn’t awake for any of it, I have no memory of anything being done. There’s actually part of me that wonders if anything was done, since I didn’t feel a thing during or after the procedure. It’s like when the mechanic tells you he’s changed the oil on your car — how do you know if he really did? It’s not like Dr. Goran showed me a used air filter he’d replaced. I’m sure there’s medical photographic evidence, but I’m not really interested in seeing it. After all, how would I know it came from inside me? I doubt that I’d recognize my own colon with any degree of certainty.
He told me that he’d removed a small polyp, but there was still a large one he couldn’t take care of. He was sure it was non-cancerous, but should still come out, and gave me the name of another doctor who would remove it. The good news is that it can be done non-surgically. The bad news is I’ll have to go through the same prep regimen again next month before I go in for that procedure. Damn! I was hoping to avoid that unpleasantness for another decade, but better to get it taken care of as soon as possible.
After the nurses wrote up all my dismissal paperwork in the recovery room, we headed for the door, and then to our favorite diner, so I could finally have some solid food. Next stop was home, where I couldn’t wait to lie down and finally get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. First, I made a mental note to tell everyone I could how easy the actual colonoscopy was and how horrible the night before had been.
Please recognize that I’m not telling you any of this to discourage you from having a colonoscopy, which is a potentially life-saving procedure. I hope you live long enough to have many of these screenings, and that each one shows nothing wrong.
I just want you to know what you’re in for the night before, since no one warned me.