The mind works in strange ways. I don't know why, but something about watching these two recent political conventions got to me thinking about my first prostrate exam last year. Maybe it was all the talk about medical policy and seniors (which I'll be soon enough). But maybe it was something else too: some more subtle link between the memory of getting my prostrate roughly fondled in that fluorescently lit room and the experience of listening to politicians talk about what they were planning to do if elected. Anyhow, last year I wrote up that unpleasant medical experience in my journal, but never thought to post it on my blog. Now that we're in full campaign swing, however, and what with me thinking about that day again, now might be just the time. My prostate seems somehow mysteriously linked to these national questions, or at least linked to the convention speeches I've heard. I noticed the feeling especially while listening to Paul Ryan. So here it is, my brief study in mid-life male vulnerability, with still unexplained political overtones. --E.M.
July 26, 2011
So you're a man in your forties and you notice that recently you have to urinate more often than before. You're getting up four or five times a night to empty your bladder, and the problem seems to be getting worse.
This was happening to me. Of course I knew what needed to be done. I needed a prostate exam.
But did I really? The morning of the exam I saw that I was by far the youngest of the six men who sat in the urologist's waiting room. I read my Hemingway novel, THE GARDEN OF EDEN, as the girl called in senior after senior. Did Hemingway have prostate problems along with all his others?
The six men waiting with me were so decrepit that only one of them looked up when, soon after my arrival, a gorgeous brunette, about 6'2" and wearing a teensy black dress, entered the clinic and strode straight across the room on her long, ivory legs. She headed directly back to the doctor's office.
What the hell? Did she work in the clinic? Not likely. Probably she was the doctor's wife or girlfriend.
When she left a few minutes later, telling one of the office staff she was going out to get donuts and swinging her car keys in the same hand as held her little red Chanel purse, my suspicion was confirmed. She was not clinic staff.
I went back to my novel and got a handful more pages read before they called me in.
At a small motel on the Côte d'Azur, the impossible Catherine, who really deserved to be strangled, had just told David she'd burned his stories, including the story about Africa that was possibly the most important thing he'd ever written.
I had to give them a urine sample, then was led into a private room. I expected the doctor, but it was a nurse who came in--tall, but with a slight mustache. Very professionally, she began explaining to me why men in their late thirties start to get problems with the prostate. She showed me a little diagram of the whole works, indicating where the prostate was, where the bladder, how it swelled with age, etc. Then she said: "Today I'm going to insert my finger in your anus and feel around the surface of your prostate."
Huh? Wasn't the doctor supposed to do that?
She explained some more about the prostate, and about medicines that could be used, and then said: "As for the exam, I can do it myself, as I said, or you may want the doctor to do it."
This was a question of scruples. Did I want a man to put his fingers up my ass or this slightly mustached woman?
"It's fine if you do it," I said.
Then she instructed me to stand and drop my pants. That was fine with me. I didn't need any of the silliness of having to undress completely and put on a hospital gown.
"First I'm going to check you out in front," she said.
She knelt down and checked me out in front, holding her fingers firmly under my scrotum and making me cough. I thought of Dustin Powers and the fur-coated dice hanging from his rear-view mirror.
"You're fine there," she said. "Now you need to turn around."
Alright, I thought, the moment of truth.
"You need to bend your knees," she said.
"Not like that, but like you're skiing."
No problem. I'm a good skier.
Then she quickly inserted her lubed finger up my anus, pressing in directly up to the prostate. Whoah! I felt her fingers roughly probing left and right, up and down. As I stood there, half bent over, I realized I hadn't had anything that far up my ass since I was in Young Republicans in high school.
It wasn't really painful, in fact she was decisive and quick, but I could feel the pressure on my bladder and came near to urinating on the floor in spite of myself.
But before I did, she stood up, pulled the latex glove off her hand, tossed it in the trash, and announced: "Your prostate is smooth."
"Like you, babe," I almost said.
With the exam over, I felt oddly closer to this mustached woman, like we'd known each other for years. I wanted to ask her about the plaque on the wall with her name on it, some kind of award or other, but before I had the chance she said the doctor would be with me shortly and stepped out of the room.
What was there left for the doctor to do? I'd already been examined.
I waited about a minute when she came back in with a worried look I didn't like one bit.
"I just got the readout on your urine sample," she said, biting her lower lip. "And, uh. . . . It appears you have some blood in your urine."
I felt my chest begin to tighten. "What does that mean?"
"Well, we can't be certain," she said, "but blood in the urine can indicate cancer of the bladder. And since you ARE a smoker . . . . Well, we may need to have you get some X-rays."
"Alright," I said, the tightness moving up to my throat. "I'll have to get some X-rays then."
"We'll wait until the doctor talks with you."
Then she left again.
I sat there under the fluorescent light of the examination room and felt a faint nausea take hold of me as I took it in. I began to perspire and wondered if I was going to be sick--sick as in nauseous. Bach's Fugue #3, pumped through ceiling speakers, started to annoy me. Was that a volume button on the wall? I tried it, but the music stayed the same. I will quit smoking cigars today, I told myself. I hope I can beat the cancer. I Will beat it, I told myself.
I waited another three minutes, but no doctor. Then another five minutes.
Finally the doctor entered. Around fifty, only slightly overweight, quite handsome. So the beauty in the black dress--now there was no doubt about it, she was his.
The doctor began to explain to me all over again how the prostate normally starts to swell in men in their late thirties, how it constricts the urine passage, and how it can be treated with medication, etc., etc. I didn't give half a damn about that. Why didn't he get to the blood in the urine part?
"As for the slight trace of blood in your urine," he said, "it could be caused by various things, even by the fact that your bladder is being stressed by the swollen prostate."
Then: "I'm going to have them take another urine sample, and if it comes back with blood in it again, I'd recommend you have further testing, just to be sure."
I appreciated that "just to be sure." It meant: "just to be sure it's not cancer," which of course implied it was unlikely it was cancer.
So I went back to do another urine sample, which wasn't difficult in the least, since the nurse had prodded me so thoroughly down there and the mention of cancer had nearly scared the piss out of me besides.
I gave them the little plastic cup with my urine in it and chatted with the office staff while I waited for the results. The woman in the black dress still wasn't back with the donuts. But I shouldn't be thinking about that, I told myself, this was serious.
I watched the nurse with the mustache across the room as she waited eagerly for the computer to print out the stats on my second cup of urine. It was almost like she really cared about the results. I appreciated this. Then I saw a little tape slowly printing out, feeding into her hand. She looked over at me and gave a delighted thumbs up sign.
"Alright," I said aloud. "Good news."
"Yes," she said, coming over. "There's no blood this time. You can go right home and we'll see you in a year."
I left the clinic, my Hemingway novel clutched in my sweaty right hand. In fact the donuts had never shown up. No matter. I walked a bit down the sidewalk to a bench and sat down. I put on my sunglasses and took a little cardboard box from my bag--the box that still held three cigars. I took out one of the cigars and lighted it as I watched the traffic go by.
Stupid, I know, but nothing takes the edge off like a good smoke.