The familiar feeling of anxiety turns my stomach hot as I approach Emory St. Joseph hospital. A routine part of post-cancer care, I arrive for bi-annual scans and bloodwork. I know these nerves, bubbling and fermented. I’m not worried I will receive bad news, 17 months cancer-free today, but I cannot keep memories from rushing my mind. Then, pre-COVID, I visited this hospital multiple times a week, mask-free and occupied with the disease inside my body, oblivious to what swam in the air outside it. Pre-COVID, I stayed in the hospital for a full week following the operation to remove the tumor in my colon. Now, patients undergo surgery and get released as soon as possible, sometimes even the same day. The seventh floor accommodates patients receiving cancer care where I stayed in room 733 overlooking Peachtree-Dunwoody road at dogwood trees blooming the first greens of spring. I knew God was with me then, and I know God is with me today as I return to one of the most depressing places on earth.
Despair hangs heavy in the radiology department, the same palpable grief that permeates cancer hospitals. Radiology centers occupy the basements of these buildings—windowless, stone-walled offices kept cold by the insulating power of concrete. Experts once believed less radiation would leak out of a basement. Cell service doesn’t penetrate here. Sunlight passes uns
een. It’s a different kind of sadness today, ripe with loneliness as patients are forced to face these procedures without the emotional support of family members. A new fear exists alongside the static presence of looming test results: the fear that an invisible assassin could eradicate an immune-compromised individual faster than cancer—except this viral fear is shared by both the healthy and the chronically ill. This place knows the sick, diagnoses the unknown, changes the future.
Today a warden guards the room, which normally overflows with people, but instead only patients sit in sparsely placed chairs. Blue stickers with white feet are stamped across the floor indicating safe social distance. A nurse stationed at the desk in the entranceway takes temperatures and asks screening questions about symptoms of COVID. Do you have an appointment? Any fever? Nausea? Vomiting? Fatigue? Sore throat, coughing or congestion beyond typical allergies? Have you been tested for COVID?
No. No. No. No. No. A “yes” answer could deny admission, and I can’t help but wonder about people like me whose procedures can’t wait; whose illness doesn’t care about COVID. Would they lie if they believed their life depended on it?
The digital thermometer looks like a taser gun, beeps as the nurse presses it to my forehead. “97.5,” she tells me, and hands over a white rectangle sticker with “Patient” written across it. An orange dot on the sticker reads, “Screened” in bold, black letters.
“Please sanitize your hands,” the nurse says, then directs me where to sit. “There’s an open chair below the television.”
I look to see my assigned seat below a screen playing HGTV’s, Christina on the Coast. A peppy blonde hypes the joy of home renovations, offers distraction from the gloomy setting. Hollywood advertises materialism as if it might compensate for what’s unfortunate.
People wear masks with animal prints, baseball prints, Falcons football logos. I wear a disposable hospital face mask refusing to make a fashion statement out of the pandemic. I want life to go back to normal… before COVID.
Before twice-a-year procedures requiring me to strip down naked except for a used hospital gown and sanitized blue socks.
Before consenting to a lab tech injecting iodine gel up my rectum to highlight internal tissue during the MRI.
Before accepting my body will always house radiation. So much so, I wonder if I could glow in fluorescent light.
I know radioactive glow is only a myth, but this isn’t: Today’s CT scans—routine care I will undergo for the rest of my life—significantly increase my likelihood of developing cancer in the future because the effect of radiation is cumulative. Today, I am exposed to the equivalent of nine years back-ground radiation; to ions powerful enough to create detailed tomographic images of the inside of my body. After today, I will have undergone seven cat scans in less than two years—the same amount of radiation encountered naturally in the environment over 34 years. I’ll return for the same tests in six months.
Eckhart Tolle says, “The mind that carries a heavy burden of the past will experience more of the same [because] the past perpetuates itself.” So just for today, I remember my body as whole. Fully intact. Healthy.
Note: Radiation is a common medical tool used for a wide array of diagnostic treatments as basic as x-rays and as powerful as PET scans. Consumer Reports published a very enlightening article about the use (and misuse) of radiation in medical practice. Because of the damaging and permanent effects of radiation, please read this article and educate yourself, particularly if you have children.