For the biopsy my doctor ordered, I am clad in a pink hospital gown, strapped into a chair and wheeled to a machine designed to press my breast into a flesh-panini, then stick it full of needles which, lidocaine or no lidocaine, I feel.
The pain is so intense I would gnaw my own breast off with my teeth to never feel such pain again.
“I don’t think it’s working,” I say to the nurses, meaning the lidocaine, meaning help, meaning stop, meaning please.
“My hand is here if you need it,” one kind nurse says.
I’m embarrassed by how much I need it. I hold onto this lovely stranger like her hand is the only thing tethering me to my body.
“Try not to look,” she says, though my eyes are already shut. Behind my eyelids, the needles I imagine are, maybe, worse.
Years ago, my husband and I took our son Locklin to a superhero movie. There was a scene with a huge machine, a lot of needles. A character wanted power, immortality, and he allowed himself to be strapped to a table. Many needles came down, all loaded with super medicine. The character, an ordinary human, turned into something called Abomination.
“I’m out,” my son said, and bolted for the exit.
He was six. Probably not great parenting, in retrospect, but still.
He’s been terrified of doctors and needles ever since.
Abomination. What a word.
This machine I’m not looking at–I don’t know how it would seem in a movie, but I’m pretty sure terrifying. The sound alone is otherworldly, hydraulic. My mouth tastes metallic. Everything smells too clean, all rubbing alcohol and bleach and ether.
“Don’t look,” another nurse says as I go on squeezing the first nurse’s hand.
“Just relax,” one of the techs says.
There are only two techs in the room, both men. I love men, but their presence here seems off, the focus being breasts and all. The techs seem intent on the machinery, their voices farther away, disembodied. I’m sure if I opened my eyes, I’d see that they’re kind, too, but I keep my eyes closed. I squeeze the hand of the nurse, who I love so much in this moment I want to weep, and maybe I do a little, I’m not sure.
“You need to hold still,” one of the men says. He sounds annoyed but professional.
The other makes his voice soft. “Try not to move. Just breathe.”
I want to say, “But breathing means moving.”
I want to be tough and kind, funny enough to make the techs and nurses like me, because if they like me even a little, they might be gentler. I want to tell them how I didn’t cry, not once, when I was in labor with my son, then my daughter. I want them to know that I’m a reasonable person, smart, mostly unflappable—that this moment is an exception. I want to say please and I’m sorry and my mother was a nurse and I want to be a good patient, the best patient, I know how, please, if I could have a minute, please, sorry sorry.
The pain is so bad it seems unbearable, though I know so many unbearable things in the end are bearable.
I want to believe the techs are trying for gentle. I am trying to love them the way I love the nurses. The nurses keep talking.
“I know it’s hard.”
“You’re doing great.”
“Let me know if you feel woozy.”
The nurse with her hand in mine tells me a story—how she’s afraid to drive, ever since her accident.
She was seven months pregnant with her daughter. She had to be pulled from her car—cut from the steel. Her daughter is fine now, four years old. The nurse is fine.
“I feel it every time I get in a car,” she says, about terror. “It’s something you can’t get over, maybe.”
She says, “I don’t want to pass my fear to my daughter.”
She says, “We pass our fears on, maybe, no matter what,” which is true and serious, but she laughs, and her laughter sounds like fluttering birds.
“We need to go in again,” one tech says, as if he’s drilling for fissures in rock. I want to say no, please.
I don’t think I say anything. I hope I don’t. I want to be a good patient, the best patient. I try breathing. Five-count breaths. Deep inhales, deep exhales.
The men ask me about my children, their ages, and I answer. Seventeen. Fourteen. Son. Daughter. Yes, I am looking forward to their futures. Yes, I am their mother—a reason to go through this; a reason to hold still and be good.
My son is graduating from high school later today, yes.
Yes, I am glad I will see that.
Yes, I am proud.
I think of my son, in his green graduation gown, singing his alma mater, which was my alma mater long ago: “Years from now we will all recall fond memories of these days.”
I think of my son running for the theater exit, all those needles coming down, abomination.
“Try to think of this like a champagne cork popping,” one tech says as more needles—many needles maybe, so many needles—press down again, again.
I keep my eyes closed. I try not to see or count the needles in my mind.
The pressure feels like my nipple popping off–a party popper, something that should spew confetti but feels like it’s spewing blood.
“Be still now,” a tech says.
I open my eyes, but it doesn’t matter. The room shrinks, like a camera lens closing.
I think about party poppers, the confetti I vacuumed up, the confetti that kept showing up weeks or years after birthdays, and now my son’s graduation. So much life left to celebrate.
Yes, I want to be healthy.
Yes, I’d like many years with my children.
Yes, I say, over and over. Yes.
“I’m not sure the lidocaine is working,” I say again, and my voice sounds lucid but far away, not mine.
“We gave you two shots,” one tech says. “You shouldn’t feel a thing.”
“Hang in there, mom,” says the other.
I try. I do.
When the procedure is over, the nurses wheel me away from the machine. They loosen the straps, the sound of Velcro tearing.
I think I thank them. I think I tell them to have a good day. I don’t feel a thing when I collapse, though I remember promising the techs and nurses I wouldn’t drop on them.
Before the room goes dark, I think I make an Abomination joke: “Amomination…Get it? A mom.”
Probably not funny.
I think I apologize. For the joke, for being so much trouble, for causing a fuss.
I hope I do.
“Grace under pressure,” my beloved Hemingway used to say.
I want that. A little grace. I want to hold onto whatever dignity I have left, exposed as I am in this pink hospital gown, in front of these strangers who’ve seen what no one in my family has seen—how afraid I am, how weak, how human.
12 thoughts on “Jokes About Needles Are Probably Not Funny”
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Thank you for sharing this story. The writing really catches the frantic nature of the moment–a trauma happening in real time.
I had lidocaine injections after my third-degree tear in labor that took an hour to stitch up (twice as long as it took me to push my baby out). I could feel the texture of each suture as it went through. Finally they gave me something stronger after almost an hour.
I think it’s *EXTREMELY* telling that it’s the men commenting here who are questioning that gender dynamics have anything to do with it or saying that such a story shouldn’t even be told.
No. What shouldn’t happen is for medical personnel to continue with a painful procedure when the patient is telling them the anesthesia hasn’t worked.
What shouldn’t happen is a medical system that continues to discount and underestimate women’s pain.
What shouldn’t happen is a culture that teaches women to apologize for having needs, rather than to advocate for ourselves–or (let us dream) not even having to advocate for ourselves because our voices and experiences are centered and we aren’t routinely exposed to violence.
Ah! I was in there reading wanting to hold your hand and say “We will help you get through this. I know it’s a lot of pain but we won’t leave you but stay with you. If you need to cry, it’s ok,go right ahead. All brave people cry!”
I loved the image of your son’s movie experience! Having two sons, I can easily visualize that scene.
Regarding the comments above, skill and compassion aren’t determined by gender. They are individual. When I was in medical school, several of my classmates stated that they wouldn’t want their wives to have female obstetricians, because the male obstetricians at that institution were more compassionate to their patients. I had a dentist whose procedures were painless and one who wasn’t as good, one male the other female. It was a difference of skill, not gender.
Saying that the skill and compassion of the individuals (or lack there of) is a gender issue is simply perpetuating the politics of division that is destroying our country. Fortunately, the author didn’t mention their race or religion.
Let’s all hope that no pathology was found, or that whatever the reason for the procedure turned out to be something that ultimately helped this writer.
In the meantime, other readers who may have a breast health issue will desperately need to know that this is not the usual experience for these procedures, and surely the options included using a higher level of anesthesia to prevent this kind of pain as described.
What I worry about, and which every thinking feeling person should worry about, is that these kind of written pieces will amplify the fears that others may have, to the point where they postpone or cancel a diagnostic procedure related to breast health, possibly allowing a tumor to progress while the woman tries to deal with her fear.
Publishing things like this that may contribute to procrastination or denial on the part of others, is a disservice to public health.
At the very minimum, the persons in charge of this procedure should have stopped and chosen a different anesthetic approach.
This is so beautiful. And it makes me so angry. I too am sorry you were not seen and heard in that room.
Thank you for your exceptional description of your experience. Your writing reminds me of a quote from Dr. Paul Kalanithi (When Breath Becomes Air)- “How little do doctors understand the hells through which we put patients.”
This is a beautiful, hearbreaking piece. It makes me want to cry that you felt compelled to apologize as if your pain wasn’t real, as if it was too much trouble for the technicians to deal with. Maybe it was too much trouble. That makes me furious. I’m sorry you had this experience.
I am sorry that you had such a difficult experience. I had the same test at a hospital in Pittsburgh and had no pain. Plus the men in the room were not techs, but a physician and a resident. I, too, had a nurse holding my hand which was very comforting. My biopsy was negative. Hope yours was as well.
A brilliant piece.
I can’t help but be struck by the difference between what the men and the women who are trying to help her say,
One (male) tech says “Just relax.”
(If you are a woman, how many times has a man told you to “Just Relax.”)
“’You need to hold still,’” one of the men says. He sounds annoyed but professional,” our patient/narrator explains.
““We gave you two shots,” one tech says. “You shouldn’t feel a thing.”
“Hang in there, mom,” says the other.
Reading this, I am thinking: “Right. Thanks.”
Clearly, the pain-killer isn’t working.
But the nurses don’t have the authority to contradict the techs.
All the nurses can say is:
“I know it’s hard.”
“You’re doing great.”
“Let me know if you feel woozy.”
One nurse manages to distract the patient by telling her about her own fears and pain. She is an exceptional nurse.
As for the patient: she just wants to please.
“I don’t think I say anything. I hope I don’t. I want to be a good patient, the best patient. ”
At the end of her ordeal, she says: “Before the room goes dark . .
I think I apologize. For the joke, for being so much trouble, for causing a fuss.”
This is a parable about women and men, and how our health care system
treats them and what women have learned from that.
When in labor, we apologize.
If men had babies, don’t you think we might have found a better
way to help them deliver–many years ago?
Great observation about the difference between what the men say and what the women say!
You are such a great writer and, more importantly, such a genuine human being. Thank you for this—I loved it.