Of PET Scans and Hippies
I am convinced that the PET scan was designed by a hippie. A technologically brilliant hippy, maybe, a Steve Jobs type boomer who in his youth was into all the psychedelics and Grateful Dead and superficial flirtations with Buddhism and the Maharishi and the Beatles’ White Album but who didn’t fry his brain on drugs and brought all those pretty day-glo colors and find-your-zen soundtracks to the realm of hyper-edged medical technology.
You will be pleased (or maybe disappointed) to learn that I did not pass out during yesterday’s needling for the PET. There was a lovely Chinese woman in charge and I, with no little degree of embarrassment, notified her that — especially on an empty stomach, and, you know, it’s biology, not me — I sometimes fainted when people started sticking pointy things in my skin. She asked me what was on my arm, where I was bruised like a heroin addict near the veins, and I told her that the last nurse had done that to me, missing the veins three times, and she said dismissively, “Bah, I don’t miss.” She slid the needle into a vein on the top of my hand before I even noticed what she had done. I was in awe and felt like I should tip her or something.
After that I grabbed my bag of clothes and went to the next station. They make you put on a gown of faded pastels, of course, and give you a big transparent bag to carry your clothes around with you from one station to the next like a homeless guy. The nurse in radiology took me into the zen room. The door was marked with one of those yellow-and-black biohazard signs, Three Mile Island and all that, briefly throwing off the whole nirvana scene they were trying to create but they usher you in pretty quickly and settle you into a big comfortable chair with wings. Think of a first-class seat on an international flight, where you can stretch out, lay back for a nap if you want, a tray to one side for movies and tray on the other for gin and tonics. Only in this case one tray held a cocktail of barium sulfate and the other a thick stainless steel tray. Oh, and a stopwatch. The nurse points to the two bottles, roughly 25 ounces each, of barium sulfate and says, “When the timer goes off, you have twenty minutes to drink all of that.” Which seemed like an awful lot of pressure. Then she pulled out this heavy steel contraption that looked like an odd miniature bank vault, screwed off the top and out of the bank vault rotated this long thin needle. Of course, it was marked with the biohazard signs and I noticed she put on gloves before handling it. “This is what you’re going to inject into me?” I asked. She plugged the needle into the IV in my hand and commenced pumping juice into me like a station attendant gassing up a Chevy.
This is when you notice the boombox on the tray with the Barium Sulfate. She clicks it on and Eastern meditation music starts playing. They give you no choices – no Johnny Cash, no Green Day. Not even Taylor Swift. Chanting yogis and strumming harps. Which is starting to creep me out. Which, I think, is the opposite effect of what they’re shooting for.
The nurse studies me. “You can turn that off if you want. It’s meant to relax you.”
She then turns off the light, which is meant to relax me further. On the walls are paintings of sunsets over the ocean and beatific beachside outings.
She pushes the timer. “I need you to relax for twenty minutes.” Which seems kind of demanding, and stressful in its own way.
“Can I read the newspaper?”
“No. I don’t want you to move your body at all. It will cause the [ruffle ruffle, I have no idea what she says here, presumably something to the effect "bio-toxic waste"] to spread into your muscles which is not what we want.”
Then: “Are you relaxed?”
“Twenty minutes.” She points at the bottles of nasty rubber-tasting thick clear liquid. “When the timer goes off, you’ve got another twenty five minutes to drink all of both bottles.”
My god, the pressure. And, please turn off that maddening transcendental music.
Of course I do it. Because that’s the kind of guy I am. If you attach a tube of radioactive toxin to my arm and tell me to drink some crazy concoction in twenty minutes and shut-up already and relax, I’m just going to do it and not going to ask any questions.
When my time is up and they lead me to the next radioactive station, the one where the giant donut hole of a machine is located, I notice one of those ubiquitous ribbons slapped to a locker door. This one is green. It says, “Petscan.org.” No kidding. Like an advertisement. When I get home I look it up and Charlton Heston is glaring out at me. “Discover the power of Positron Emission Tomography (PET),” it (he?) says.
They put me on a long narrow bed, or couch as they referred to it, like I was coming in for a psychoanalysis session, and tell me to put my arms over my head. Good, now don’t move. Again, with the not moving thing. The bed cot couch thing then is slowly thrusted in and out of the metallic orifice of the PET camera device. Need I say any more? I have become a living sexual metaphor.
For thirty minutes this goes on, me not moving, arms rigidly laid out above my head, in and out, in and out. It’s actually strangely anticlimatic. (Get it? Climatic? No one?) You just lay there. Often the bed doesn’t move at all. Presumably a camera somewhere in that hulking machine is taking pictures. At one claustrophobic point, when my head is inside the tunnel, I look up and notice smallish lenses and I’m bored and so I’m staring at them trying to figure out if this is where all the work is done and then I notice some writing in small font-size just below the lens and I don’t have my glasses on because of course they have stripped me of everything including my dignity except for this awful faded gown and I squint and I notice that the lettering says: “Warning: Do not stare into this beam.” So now, while I’ve got nothing better to do, my imagination starts running wild and I’m worried about whether I’ve just deepfried my eyeballs. Sitting there in the dark, I want to touch them, make sure they’re still there.
And just as I start to nod off, I’m done.