The Cultural Politics of the CAT Scan Experience

I had to get a renal/pelvic CAT scan yesterday. Just ruling out some options for a trace of blood in my urine (kidney stone, polyps in the bladder—who knows). I’m not convinced I truly needed the procedure, but I decided to play Good Little Patient and let the young, overconfident urologist order it. He’s been reassuring that we’ll figure out the problem with the blood and some urethral burning (yes, I know, that's more info than you want or need), and the antibiotics he gave me first did cure the burning symptoms. But the blood hasn’t (yet) gone and no kidney stone has been forthcoming, so he wants to rule out any kidney problems (after thumping me in them a few times to no effect in the office) before we head for the office-visit cystoscopy (a.k.a. scope up the urethra, which makes me turn into Kevin Meaney and think “that’s not riiiiight!”).

Anyhow, the point of this unpleasant blog is how unpleasant the damn CAT scan was! The real rant, though (given the general aims of this blog), is less to bitch about the procedure than to bitch about the way the procedure is and is not represented to the patient. Here is a list of my complaints:

1. The doctor made it seem entirely simple and without complication or discomfort. He did give the usual caveat, glibly babbled off, about people dying from the procedure in very rare cases, to which I replied, “How can you say I have nothing to worry about AND that I might die from it?” “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of you,” he smiled into my face. And off I went to schedule it.

2. The nurse in the X-ray area gave me two bottles of yuck to drink without ever once mentioning—verbally or on the instruction sheet—that this barium stuff causes bloating, cramping, serious gas, and even diarrhea. She did say it has a metallic taste and to put it in the fridge before drinking it. (The flavor was mildly coconut, but the texture was something between school glue and male ejaculate—ok, that’s DEFINITELY more than you wanted to read, but it gets across the point of how difficult it was to guzzle down in quantity.) She did not, however, say “Watch out for the runs!” (The CAT scan technician put it this way when I complained of the cramping during the procedure: “Oh, some people don’t even get diarrhea.”) In that waiting room after swigging the shit down, I made several potty trips in half and hour and passed so much gas I could’ve filled a hot-air balloon.

3. The “contrast dye” they use for your organs is, as the doctor said, “an injection,” but he didn’t say it was through an IV! Those things HURT and the dye can cause hives, shortness of breath, or more severe allergic reaction, including death. No one told me this until I was already in the CAT scan room with the Donut of Doom looming before me. The technician did tell me that the dye would give me a burning sensation in my throat and bladder, and it did, but it passed quickly.

4. Oh yeah, they make you injest ANOTHER large cup of barium yuck (this time it wasn’t coconut glue but metallic orange fizz) just before you lie down, to “top you off” as the technician said.

5. The actual renal/pelvic CAT scan requires that you hold your breath about 10 times during the procedure, between 10 and 30 seconds each. This isn’t tough unless you’re already hyperventilating, of course, which I’m happy to say I wasn’t. However, it is not easy to hold your breath over and over again when you’re having increasingly sharp gas pains from being overfull of barium yuck and having to lie prone with it gurgling through your guts.

In the end, I lived to tell the tale. I withstood the horrid IV experience, held my breath as required between stabbing gas pains, passed the barium yuck over the course of the day from every orifice, and then went shopping (found a remarkable pink tank top with Tank Girl on it, saying “Oh, the preposterous bollocks of the situation!” at Marshalls—an unexpected treasure).

What I want is for doctors and nurses to let people know this stuff awaits them with this “simple procedure.” Just a little sheet saying that some of this may happen to them. But truly informed consent seems something the medical community is just simply uninterested in.



What do you get when you combine strep throat, a urinary tract infection, 2 weeks of antibiotics that give you a yeast infection and make you sensitive to the sun, a follow-up headcold, spring allergies, and end-of-term workload?


Yes, I Enjoyed V for Vendetta

I was disturbed to hear that V for Vendetta cost $54 million. (Worldwide it’s already earned $70 million, so all is right with the world, eh?) Now, I’m always frustrated by how much a few hours escape at the cinema costs, even when a film is life-changing (this one isn’t). (Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which was life-changing for me, cost $6.5 million, by contrast. And Brokeback only cost $14 million.) During the film, I’m generally in filmgoer space, mentally, but before and after I often think about those abstract “liberal” ideas like “feed all homeless people for a year or make one movie…hmmmm….”

But if we surrender to the wisdom that says “it doesn’t work like that” and just look at the film, what do we have? First, we have to consider the issue of the Wachowski brothers label on the film. Yes, they are able to tap into cultural anxieties and do a good job of rendering comic books (literally and metaphorically) in the (cinematic) flesh. The Matrix, like V for Vendetta, captivated through focus on a world beyond our control—one via extra-terrestrial domination and one via political repression. Each film gripped and entertained me, got me thinking about how much we take for granted and also how much life resembled the film world. (Come to think of it, I liked Dark City this way, too.) Yet, The Matrix had more in common with the first Alien film (and the sequels yielded horror to sci-fi for both series—though the second Matrix film was no Aliens). By contrast, V for Vendetta, from a graphic novel I liked less than Watchmen but enjoyed, has more in common with 1984 (and I did like seeing John Hurt go from a long-ago turn as Winston Smith to another incarnation of Big Brother in V for Vendetta). Given that the Wach Bros. didn’t write or direct the thing, my criticism of them centers primarily on the ghastly budget and a curiosity of how much of that budget was truly needed to make the film.

With that out of the way, I want to praise the content and political pleasure I had in the film. I absolutely loved the heavy-handed Bush slams in the film. From a graphic novel aimed at Thatcher to this obvious and downright gleeful attack on Dubya, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the rest of the gang of lying, dangerous thugs; V for Vendetta is a wonderful reminder that many of us can see that the emperor has no clothes, that Empires must fall, and that intelligence and art will triumph over greed and power-mongering (thank you, Cyrano). It was uplifting, dammit. Like watching The Daily Show, I need some good Leftist uplift in my media, however hammer-you-over-the-head simple in metaphors and symbols it may be.

Does this mean that Natalie Portman’s shaved head bit doesn’t rely on Holocaust imagery it does not earn (can’t help but compare her negatively to Hurt in 1984, where the metaphor was far better earned and not played for titillation)? Naah. (And omigod, look at that picture! Found it on a random search. “Prison torture can make me feel soooooooooo sexy!”)

But go see the film. I did truly enjoy it.