I went through one completely tortuous medical procedure over and over when I was a child. I can remember the pain and the helplessness to this day. I can even remember the name of the nurse, what the waiting room looked like, and the color and taste of the medicine they gave me.
This was when I was in the age range of 4-6, and I know that because it happened for at least a couple of years before my daddy died when I was 6.
See, one health problem was that I had trouble completely emptying my bladder. That’s not a good thing, because keeping old urine inside you gives germs a place to grow. It leads to frequent urinary tract infections, and we all know that UTIs mean pressure, pain and the constant urge to pee with only a trickle coming out. It was bad enough that I once got a kidney infection severe enough to require surgery when I was about four. (I only remember being on a gurney, being wheeled into what I later learned was an operating room, full of scary strangers with surgical masks on and all sorts of scary lights and tools. No one had told me what was going to happen. I was screaming for my mama and being held down, and the anesthesia mask on my face felt like suffocation.)
I woke up in pain.
The eventual diagnosis was that my urethra was too narrow, so the treatment at the time was a barbaric procedure called urethral dilation. That means that the urologist inserts a thin metal rod up your peehole to stretch it. He will use progressively larger metal rods until the urethra is deemed to be adequate. This isn’t done in just one visit.
The problem is that — at the time (mid 1960s) — the patient had to be conscious, and there was zero anesthesia. No pain deadening. I felt everything. I assume now that this was so the doctor could gauge whether he was dilating too little, too much, or just enough. Whatever the reason was, it was brutal. It hurts when the uretha stretches and when it sometimes tears.
I can remember crying on the way to the urologist’s office each time, then sitting in the waiting room before the procedure and dreading the sight of the nurse, Juanita, when she approached. She would bring me a tiny medicine cup with about a tablespoon of pale pink liquid in it, supposedly to ease the pain. I would knock it back. And while the taste of the medicine was still strong in my mouth, my mother would carry me back to the procedure room. (There was no way the medicine had time to take effect.) Juanita usually fussed at me. It usually took my mom and 2-3 nurses to hold me down, spreadeagled, in the examination room while the doctor dilated me with a long, thin silver rod. I screamed my lungs out the entire time because it hurt like hell.
I’ve never been raped, thank God, and I don’t mean to compare a legitimate medical procedure to that kind of sexual violation. But I have often thought about my helplessness and pain at the hands of my mother and a doctor and nurses who were like my mom … it has some similarities in the trauma it caused.
Have you ever passed a kidney stone? Hurts like hell. That’s because it scratches and sometimes tears your urethra. Imagine having a kidney stone jammed in the entire length of your urethra. That was my reality. He would do several progressively larger rods during each visit. I remember that I arched my back screaming and lifting off the table, and they had to hold me down harder.
My mom always took me to the toy store afterward for a gift. And there were several days afterward when peeing felt like I was pissing fire. Then I would heal.
Eventually, we’d have to go to the urologist’s office again. And again. And again.
Why didn’t they use anesthesia to at least make me fall into a twilight sleep? Or use real anesthesia to put me fully under? Maybe it wasn’t possible at the time. And, yes, I’m aware of the risks that anesthesia brings. But the treatment was pure horror for me.
I hated that fucking urologist. Most of all, I hated Juanita, because she never showed a spark of compassion in her eyes. It was always a furious scowl about the bratty little girl raising such a fuss.
I’ve been to a couple of urologists since then as an adult because of kidney stones or UTIs. I’ve casually asked each about the practice of urethral dilations, and they IMMEDIATELY shut down that discussion with extreme distaste, as if I’d asked about leeches and lobotomies.