Journey to the center of my bottom

Having a camera shoved up my rectum was not the way I wanted to celebrate my 50th year.

By Howie Gordon

Published June 8, 2000 7:03PM (EDT)

Turning 50 is a wonderful milestone in a person's stay on Earth. Traditionally a birthday of high celebration, it's a time of meaningful connections and thoughtful gifts. It's also a time for a battery of routine medical tests -- including those aimed at examining one's colon.

The first of such tests is the sigmoidoscopy. In this highly sophisticated medical procedure, your doctor shoves a plastic hose up your rectum, equipped with a television camera and something like a set of pincers, and proceeds to collect samples off your colonic walls.

Though I've known many people to turn 50, I've never heard them talk of this procedure or the dark recesses where it could lead. So in the interest of public service, I've decided to break the silence.

The morning of the procedure, I prepared myself according to the doctors orders: self-administering a double enema. Then, bearing gifts of flowers and chocolates for the good doctor, I put myself in his hands. The hose went up my bottom, I sang a few Barry Manilow tunes and I was soon on my way back home.

When the results of my sigmoidoscopy came back, my physician told me that I had a big decision to make. "We found two polyps growing in your colon and we biopsied them," he said. "One of them was a pre-malignant polyp which sounds bad, but is quite normal in men of your age. The decision you have to make is whether or not you want to investigate the rest of the colon to see what kind of shape it's in."

Evidently, the sigmoidoscopy only examines the first third of the colon. To look at the rest one must undergo a procedure called the colonoscopy.

It really didn't seem like a difficult decision to make. The idea of a longer garden hose with a bigger camera and sharper pincers didn't sound like any reason to go out and buy a new tuxedo.

But I was overruled. My older brother, who is a doctor, told me: "Hey, it's good preventive medicine. Find out what's going on." My own personal physician didn't hesitate either. "Oh, absolutely," he said, like it was a foregone conclusion that I would jump at the chance to have my bowels unearthed on prime-time hospital television.

So a date was set. Schedules were adjusted, commitments were made, insurance companies were informed and preparatory instructions were received:

    No aspirin for a week prior to the procedure.
    No solid food after breakfast on the day before.
    Begin drinking 4 liters of PEG-3350 & Electrolytes in solution at 4 p.m. prior to the next day's procedure.
    On the day of the procedure, at 7:30 a.m., another enema just for kicks.
    Check-in at the hospital at 8:30 a.m. for the 10 o'clock procedure that should last about an hour. Arrange for someone else to drive me home around noon.

Hell on Earth began when I took my first sip of the PEG-3350 & Electrolytes in solution the day before the procedure. "You have to drink this," the doctor had explained, "to clean out your colon. If we can't see anything, then we'll have to cancel the test and start all over again another time."

It tasted like heavy water, the kind you imagined coursing through the plumbing of an atomic bomb. It was terrible; it was unspeakable; it had the texture of sludge and it went down like chilled liquid lead.

I was supposed to drink a quart and a half from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.; another quart and a half from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.; and the remaining slime from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Excretory fireworks were supposed to commence within an hour of the last gulp.

I started off on schedule, taking my first sip at the designated time, but three-and-a-half hours later, I was still nursing my first quart-and-a-half and was ready to rip the limbs off any human being who came near me.

The children had all fled upstairs and locked their bedroom doors. The wife was standing on the other side of the room from me. She was poised with a cellphone in her hand to call 911 should she require any emergency assistance.

With three full quarters of this devil's brew to consume, I panicked and tried phoning my doctor. His office was closed and a tape recording said that only life-or-death referrals should be rechanneled to some other number.

I sank in the well of degenerate suffering. I was utterly failing in the task to imbibe this pollutant of pond scum. I was miserable. And I could hear my kids laughing hysterically behind closed doors.

With nothing else to do, I called my brother. Older by five years and having been down this road himself, he truly enjoyed my misery. He delivered a rousing pep talk on how I should continue to drink the rest of my prescription, but near the end of his sibling vengeance some hidden compassion managed to slip through.

He confessed that when he had to drink the four quarts-plus of atomic urine, he could only manage to down half of it. Ironically, both my wife and his had been able to drink the whole thing. We marvelled at the strength (and stupidity) of our women, but I had learned what I needed to know from him: My assignment had just grown easier by half.

When I resumed the Herculean chore of downing more formula, I managed only another glass and a half before I utterly quit. In bold heroic fashion, I poured the remainder down the toilet.

Within the hour, projectile diarrhea had commenced and it was every man for himself. I don't think my kids ever had more fun. The nausea was off the charts. The crackling gases and gushing torrents tested the very strength of the porcelain bowl. Thunder and lightning ruled in the bathroom and I tossed in the storms of positively brutal intestinal seas until the two quarts of poison that I had managed to consume had run their evil course. Of this suffering, Shakespeare could have gleaned at least four full-length tragedies.

Alas, nothing could come close to that long, turbulent night. The actual medical procedure the next day was anticlimactic. The enemas were a minor irritation, but compared to the passing storms, they were like a date with Madonna. Once at the hospital, they gave me Demerol. Blessed be He who gave us Demerol.

During the procedure, they put on some Judy Garland records and inserted the entire contraption up my butt. They inflated my colon with air to help them maneuver the hose around some tight corners. I slept. I hummed along with Judy: "Clang ... clang ... clang, went the trolleys ..." And I watched my colon on TV. It looked like a spelunking expedition in the "uppa U.S." And then they were done with me and I went home.

A few days later my doctor informed me that my colon was fine, then added cheerfully, "We'll do it all again in a couple of years." Yeah! Right!

Before I ingest even one more drop of that slime ever again, I will swallow wash rags and do the twist all night. There are always alternatives. I should think that three days of a liquid diet would do the trick. But whatever it is, PEG-3350 & Electrolytes and I have had our last date.

Learning to grow old with dignity is challenging enough without help from the evils that haunt 20th century colon care. Sure, I know they're trying to help me, they're trying to ensure that I enjoy a few more golden birthdays with my loved ones, but really, at what cost?

Howie Gordon

Howie Gordon is a freelance writer living in Berkeley, Calif.

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