Friday, February 18, 2005


I remember walking into a German deli once, right off the Autobahn, and being so completely disoriented that I had no idea where to even start. I did not know that I had to (1) pay first at the cash register and then (2) order what I wanted from the short order cook. Who knew it was in reverse order from how we do things in the U.S.? It wasn't that the menu was completely different -- I can adjust to that. I certainly know what food looks like, regardless of what words bring about an "egg" in another country. It's the fact that the rules of engagement aren't the same, and I'm totally lost.

Just like that scenario, I tend not to hear things when they're not the way I expect them to be. It's not selective listening. It's more like you-can-shout-all-you-want, I-will-never-hear-you.

And so it was when I walked into the hospital x-ray wing yesterday. I was to receive a mammogram, my first in over a decade. I have a clever doctor, and I suspect the last several meetings -- including two colonoscopies and one colonectomy -- were part of the massive build-up in preparation, just a sly way to get me to agree to this latest procedure. Since she'd done so much for me in the last two years, I felt I owed her this one.

I have been to this same building before. I've gone into the same waiting room, only this time it was 7:45 in the morning, and instead of being stuffed to the rafters with patients, I was almost alone. I went to the wrong window, the one on the left. "No, you go over there," she said, pointing to the one on my right three windows over. While it had #1 written on it, it was completely over to the right. Like reading Japanese.

The woman who greeted me there was very nice as well, despite the early hour and their obvious need to get ready for the day. She asked me to look over the paperwork. I said, "Well, my next of kin is wrong, my phone numbers are wrong....most of this is wrong." She went back to typing in her computer. After a few minutes, she asked me, "Are you finished reading it?" I said yes. She took it and then told me to have a seat and wait for the technician. There was no attempt to correct the wrong things. I think she said something in there, but I didn't hear her. I know I didn't fix anything, and she didn't either. I was still thinking about this, obviously without having done anything to correct it or even ask her why we hadn't, when the female tech called my name, sort of. "Mrs. So-and-So?" I bristled at the "Missus." There was only one other woman in the waiting room, and I doubt her last name was the same as mine. So I guess that antiquated assumption was for me.

She was nice otherwise, though. She told me to take off my shirt and get into that ubiquitous hospital gown. That was just for show, for when she came back in she told me to take it off. I said the equipment was quite different at the last place I had had this procedure. "Metal and cold," I said. She said with a small laugh that it might not be metal, "but it's still cold."

As she positioned me and took four x-rays, i still screwed up her directions. "Look up," she would say and I would look down. She would put my breast on the plate and I'd try to put my arm around the plate, which must've been wrong as she moved it right away. The instructions had read that compressed breasts might hurt for a couple of days and be bruised. I was thinking of that as I disobeyed her orders, well, not willingly, flailing away as I contorted myself for the x-ray monster. I was back on the autobahn, trying to find that egg sandwich in the deli.

At the end, I had to admit it wasn't very difficult. Things have improved in ten years. I still suspect they'll call me back two more times due to false readings, but I won't know that for another week. However, the disorientation in all things medical continues. I think it's probably due to a natural nervousness, trying to interpret every small thing so you can either control your environment or at least figure out if the person in front of you knows something you don't. They do. They know how to get around. They know that you have to pay for the egg sandwich before you get it.

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