I’ve certainly been in more difficult, uncomfortable positions in my life. But lying in bed, trying not to faint, with only a thin gauze bandage and a pair of Hanes briefs separating my scrotum from a bag of frozen vegetables easily makes the top ten.
I spent the morning with the urologist. He has dark hair and a short beard with just a hint of gray and a nose only slightly smaller than mine. His dry, friendly wit, his muscular arms, and the tasteful tie that follows the contour of his mildly pot-shaped belly lend him an air of congenial competence without arrogance. He reminds me of a less frenetic version of my cousin in Alaska, the one who stayed up until two in the morning installing an on-demand water heater to win a nickel bet from his wife who thought he couldn’t finish before midnight.
When I first met Dr. S for a consult, he went through a long list of reasons for and against the procedure I was considering. Possible complications, alternative forms of contraception, suggested but unproven links to prostate cancer, and let’s not forget a brief description of the procedure itself, developed in China, and complete with terms such as clamp, incision, suture, cauterize, and Novocain. Not spinal block, not general anesthetic, just Novocain. Afterwards he asked me if I had any questions.
“Well, in your opinion, do you think I’m one of these men who decide to do this for the wrong reasons?”
“No, I think you qualify. You’re forty-one years old. You have two children without planning on any more. You have a stable marriage. You seem pretty comfortable with all the information I’ve given you.”
“Almost. There’s only one part that truly worries me.”
“Afterwards. The ice.”
“You’re a smart guy.”
He had me take down my pants for a quick exam. At its peak, my body was never much to look at. Age has softened the edges and creased the eyes. I’m generally healthy and am not shy of being naked in front of medical people. I’ve known many medical people in my life, both personally and professionally. I even married one. They have seen it all, and it would take more than my scrawny, chicken-assed, middle aged body to illicit a mocking titter or wry disrespectful smirk. Instead, Dr. S promised that if he only found one testicle, I’d get a discount. Twenty-first century medical humor.
Afterwards I dressed again and sat down by his desk. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure” he answered, washing his hands with industrial pink soap I associate with hospitals.
“Why did you choose to become a urologist? If it’s not too personal.”
“I don’t mind. It’s a good question.” He dried his hands and sat down with a hint of a smile on his face and a thoughtful look on his face. “I remember my first day of medical school. We all went around saying what kind of medicine we thought we might want to practice. When one guy said, ‘Urology,’ we all looked at him. ‘Eww!’ we told him. ‘That’s disgusting.'”
He let this sink in a minute, for effect, though I’m not sure it was the effect he wanted.
“But the thing about urology is that its one of those few medical discipline that it is still possible to master. The systems are simple enough and the body of literature out there is manageable enough that you can still learn all of it. And it has a nice combination of different kinds of work. There’s the whole clinical side, consulting and advising patients, and lab work and a little surgery and so on. It’s a nice variety.”
There’s a subtext, and I hear it. We all know adventurous people. Explorers and pilots and heart surgeons and so on. They are so afraid of boredom that they can’t stop risking their lives, changing careers, pursuing new lovers. They relate their exploits with dramatic expressions, and there’s always the moment in the story, usually just after they’ve rappelled down the cliff with a broken arm and then trekked twelve miles to civilization in jury-rigged snowshoes, when they have the far away look in their eye shining with the wisdom that says, “Life is short. Eat dessert first.” They are the center of attention at the parties they attend.
I am not like that. The only time I went rappelling, I was handed wet gloves that burned my palms as the rope slid between my hands. I was forced to lower myself hand over hand while drunken river rafters below yelled up “Jump!” My eyes speak a different kind of wisdom – “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” I just had this intuition that Dr. S was like me. Perhaps it was the fact that, although he was a doctor, he was not likely announce at a cocktail party, “I am a urologist,” to the assembled strangers. If asked what he did for a living, he would more likely say, “Me? I sell insurance, and you’d be surprised what a fascinating career it is.” I know that’s what I’d say in his shoes.
Nevertheless, there was a egotistical challenge for me in this procedure. I somehow thrilled at the idea that I was going to have surgery with only a local anesthetic. Years ago I had a tooth filled without any anesthetic, and then later had a gum graft operation with only Novocain. My wife, who fears dentists more than the angel of Death, held me in awe for both this feats of daring-do, but then last year she went and had arthroscopic knee surgery with only a spinal block. She walked into the operating theatre and watched the entire operation on video as it was happening. I wasn’t sure I could top that. The pressure was on. My manhood, or what was about to be left of it, was at stake.
We scheduled the procedure for the end of the month, and on the way out of the office, the doctor handed me a small manila envelope the size of a credit card. Inside was a valium which he suggested I take an hour before surgery.
“Doc, I really don’t think I’ll need this,” I told him. This was not bravado. Truth be told I was afraid to take it. I had heard of the sloppy and salacious statements people have confessed under its influence during surgery.
“Well, take it anyway. We got barrels of the stuff to get rid of. And you may change your mind.”
Later that month, the whole family succumbed to some preschool virus, and although I got better, I did not get better fast enough to suit the doctor. So we postponed the operation for a month, after all the April birthdays in our family. Then I whacked my knee on vacation in Texas. As the end of April approached, the swelling in my knee wasn’t gone, but I wasn’t going to postpone this procedure another month. A week before my surgery, I cut off the blood-thinning ibuprofen as directed.
On the last day of April, we dropped off Rose at preschool, and Dawn drove Samuel and me to the medical office building for my appointment. We were fifteen minutes early. I registered at the desk and then Dawn asked, “Do you want us wait with you?” I watched Samuel escape from her grasp and run around the waiting room, pulling all the medical literature off the racks. I suggested she take him someplace he could really run around and come back in an hour to collect me.
Truth be told, I had brought a book with me, a very good book that I had started weeks ago and was still trying to read in the few free moments of time my scheduled allowed. Reading a good book in such small incremental pieces is maddening, like eating a piece of cake one bite a day. I expected to make some serious progress this morning, but no sooner had Dawn left and I had cracked open the spine, the nurse appeared at the door and called me in.
The examination room was modern medical utilitarian. Linoleum floors, eggshell white walls, a fold-out examination table, a stainless steel sink with the industrial pink soap and the motion-detecting paper towel dispenser, plus various computer equipment with lights and jacks and beeps and pings. All the sharp and dangerous tools were hidden away somewhere, as just the sight of them could unduly raise a patient’s blood pressure.
I handed the nurse the little manila envelope with the valium still inside. “Can I get my deposit back?” I joked. She did not answer, did not smile or frown, but quietly took the envelope and placed it in her lab coat pocket. I don’t know how to put it, but her bedside manner was distressing. She was not prim, not impatient, not demanding. She didn’t do anything particularly wrong, but there was a noticeable lack of warmth, as if she absorbed all emotions in the room as a sponge absorbs blood, and her presence was stained with it. You sensed it would all wash off of her in her next shower.
She took my blood pressure – 120 over 70. She took my pulse – 60. She took my temperature – 98. If I hadn’t known this was SOP, I might have suspected that she doubted my claim that I didn’t need the valium. She seemed an odd, but appropriate foil to Dr. S. I suppose a vivacious, pretty young thing in a svelte nurse uniform would not be the most efficacious care provider in an office that sees a lot of men with their pants down, nor would you want an older, palsied veteran when there were surgical knives being passed around. And then it occurred to me that if there was anyone who would be less proud to admit their occupation at a cocktail party, even more so than Dr. S, it might be a urological nurse. I had to admit, she was one of us. She was in the club.
I declined the box of CDs she offered me, holding up my book by way of explanation and secretly hoping she would take the hint and leave me be. When she left, I quickly undressed and sat on the medical hide-a-bed with a sheet over my lap, but just as I had found my page and remembered what was happening in the story, the doctor walked in.
“Well, you threw me for a loop,” he began cheerfully enough, as I closed the book in my lap but kept my finger holding the page. “I usually don’t schedule this procedure first thing Monday morning. In fact, I usually only do them on Wednesdays and Thursdays.” He paused thinking about the effect this statement might have on me before hastily adding, “though I’m sure I’ve performed them before on a Monday.”
“Doctor, just tell me you’ve had your coffee this morning.”
The doctor began prepping. He moved with the practiced motions and endless patter of a traveling magician, explaining everything as he went along and distracting me from the things I wasn’t supposed to see. Since he was laying things in my lap, I had no place to open my book, but I figured things would settle down soon.
First he stuck an adhesive pad on my left butt cheek with a wire lead that plugged into a machine to “electrically ground” me. Then he taped the shaft of my shrinking appendage out of the way with a jocular warning that the tape would likely pull some hairs when it came off afterwards. There was some communication with the nurse about repointing a somewhat noisy and archaic fan in a more useful direction, which was followed with some localized shaving and then a careful setting of sterile towels which I was explicitly forbidden to touch. I listened and watched and nodded, half sitting up, trying to keep my book out of the way, but I wasn’t ready to lay it aside. I was just waiting for the Novocain, which I figured would be the worst part, so that I could finally lay back and read my book.
At this point, you might have a certain anxiety growing in the pit of your abdomen. If you are a man, you are likely having uncomfortable, vicarious sensations below your belt. If you are a woman, well, imagine hanging your eyeballs in a thin sack between your legs and go from there. Like most gourmands of the horror genre, you are continuing to read with a macabre fascination despite the several warning alarums sounding in your head. You know that you don’t want to know what happens next, yet you cannot stop yourself. Dear readers, fear not! I come from a long line of men who courageously face their problems in life, but who faint at the slightest tinge of their own blood. I will not spill any gory details, at least not many, and I certainly won’t invent any for your twisted titillation.
I lay back at the angle of the raised back rest as the minor prick of the needle entered my skin. A cold sensation like ice water, ran down my leg. I said to myself that now was the time for my book and the sooner I got immersed in it the better. But I couldn’t.
There was a mildly unpleasant sensation in my left testicle. A clamping sensation. And rather than drown in the icy wave of Novocain, it was not going away. I mentioned this to the doctor, pointing with my left hand, but before he could ask me to remove this hand off the sterile towel, I asked in the same breath if he would very much mind lowering the back rest all the way to horizontal position before I passed out.
Unfortunately, the nurse had momentarily left the room. I had been so accommodating, calm, and unaffected by everything that she had been sent on some errand. My sudden alarming request caught him off guard. His hands were busy somewhere blessedly below my field of rapidly diminishing vision. They were too involved to be of any help in my need, so he stretched his left foot towards me on the floor. I heard a click and the mechanical whirring of gears as my head lowered to a more inviting inclination. My hands and feet felt cold, and as my eyes closed, a small surge of nausea threatened my compsure. At that moment the nurse returned and soon had a cold compress over my forehead.
I did not pass out, and eventually the Novocain kicked in. My testicle stopped hurting and soon my fluttering eyelids revealed the white moonscape of the ceiling tiles. The doctor kept up a distracting chatter, occasional firing friendly questions my way, but after the third single-syllable guttural answer, he stopped asking questions and instead began to tell me about his recent trip to Costa Rica. He had visited an indoor preserve for wounded birds where a toucan came up and bit him on the arm. Yes, I thought to myself, you are one of us too. I was starting to feel better, despite an occasional painless but distressing tug from below, and before I could stop myself, a ill-conceived question popped out of my mouth.
“By the way,” I asked. “What’s that burning smell? Is that the fan?”
There was a slight pause, I might say a pregnant pause, before the doctor answered, “Um. No.”
“Oh,” I realized too late. “That would be me, wouldn’t it? Cauterizing, are you?”
“Um … yes.”
“It has more of a burnt tire smell than I would have expected.”
The doctor laughed, more of a snort in disbelief. “Usually, it’s that very smell that causes my patients to pass out.”
Surprisingly, knowing this didn’t make me feel any worse than before. I did a quick internal inventory. My toes wiggled, my fingers flexed, neither as cold as before. Eyes were no longer open, but I could have opened them if I wanted. I was still light-headed, but no nausea anymore. There you have it, I said to myself. I may not be tough enough to watch my own sterilization, but at least I don’t faint at the smell of my own flesh charring. And I defy any other man to remain vertical with his testicle in a clamp. Overall, sir, a pretty impressive performance, I told myself.
“I’m feeling a little better,” I announced for no reason in particular that I could explain.
“That’s good,” said the nurse, “Because your skin was looking a ghastly gray pallor a few minutes ago.” She smiled. She had a made a joke. She seemed positively human. Now that I had been revealed as a fainter, she had something she could deal with as a nurse. At her dinner table tonight, at least she could say to her family and guests, “I ministered a young man with fainting spells until he was able to walk out,” which was a lot better than saying, “Oh, you know, the usual. I handed the doctor a razor so he could shave someone’s testicles.” It positively improved her attitude.
When the surgery was over, I lay still for a while, not wanting to leap off the table just to crack my fainting head on the linoleum. The doctor took advantage of this time to go through the home recovery procedures: ibuprofen, rest, the dreaded ice. And do not let my children jump into my lap for a few days. “Stop, you must not hop on Pop,” I recited, but apparently Dr. S was not well-versed with his colleague, the other Dr. S.
By the time the nurse returned with Dawn and Samuel, I was dressed and sitting in a chair, holding my hand straight out in the air to see if I could keep it still. Samuel immediately began to wander through the room looking for things to pull down, but most everything was out of reach, and the sharps had been promptly disposed. Dawn lassoed him back to her lap, where she plied him with banana chips and ignored his persistent questions of “What’s dat, Mommy?”
“How are you doing, love?” Dawn asked me.
“Better. We can head home as soon as I’m feeling steady on my feet.”
I watched Samuel eating banana chips on Dawn’s lap, glad that this was over. We really are too old to have more children, I thought, and was glad to be sitting for a peaceful moment in the company of my wife. The procedure wasn’t a big deal like having a limb amputated, but I would not have gone through it for any other woman.
“It says here,” I said pointing to the post-op instructions, “that I’m not actually sterile yet for a few weeks until things wash out a bit. And I will have to bring in a few, um… samples later for testing.”
She waited a moment for the point. “Yes?”
“So, how you’d like to help me out with that?”
I took her smile for a yes.