You know it's going to be a bad afternoon when a female physician with decent-looking fingernails introduces herself with a firm handshake and then, just minutes later, says, "I've got a hunch it's your prostate."
It had started that morning, when I awoke to find that one of my testicles had metamorphosed into something that resembled a rust-red cannonball. Naturally, when I discovered the problem I did what any normal man would do: I went to work, determined to keep my pledge of never seeing a doctor unless my life insurance company required it or my body temperature exceeded the point at which cobalt melts.
But by noon I was having second thoughts, in part because it's difficult to type on your hands and knees with your head positioned over the toilet, but mostly because it felt as if someone had clamped a serrated steel pipe wrench around my gonads and then spent the last hour or two tightening it down.
Obviously, I had some sort of infection, so I hurried home to call my HMO. They have a system whereby the operator lets you chronicle your symptoms for her in exacting detail, then asks for your daytime and evening phone numbers so someone who can understand such medical terminology as "I have a fever of 107 degrees" can ring you back and decide whether you should have rushed over for emergency treatment eight hours earlier, when you first made the call. By the time the nurse practitioner finally got back to me that afternoon, I was in such pain that I had fished my electric knife from the cabinet and was prepping myself for emergency surgery. But I certainly didn't want to sound like an alarmist, and I thought that if I just kept the conversation low-key she'd see to it that a prescription for antibiotics was phoned in to my pharmacy, thereby sparing me the cab fare and the humiliation of having to wear one of those paper gowns that's supposed to tie in the back but always has a strap missing, so when someone comes in to take your blood pressure you have to sit there looking like you're holding a giant napkin out in front of you.
"Do you have any other symptoms?" the nurse practitioner asked, as if having to pack a burning 16-pound testicle in ice and carry the thing around in a sling wasn't awful enough to warrant a few hundred million units of penicillin with no other questions asked.
"I seem to be having a little difficulty urinating," I said, slightly downplaying the fact that over the last two days I had flushed a toilet every six or seven minutes, and each time I'd walked away feeling as if I'd just tried to pass a radioactive jujube.
"You better get right down here this minute," she said, convincing me that I ought to quickly sell all my possessions and move to some paradise island like Tonga to live out the remaining few days of my wretched life. "When a man in your age group has the sort of problems you're describing, we don't take any chances."
The waiting room of my HMO is always an uplifting place, because you get to see dozens of incredibly horrible bodies with what are probably contaminated orifices that you'd never want to look at, let alone touch, and you realize that, despite the money you'd be raking in as a doctor, failing chemistry and physics and biology--and, as a result, having your medical school applications and the processing fees returned with little notes telling you to save your money--was probably the best thing that ever happened to your career track, even if your parents were disappointed enough to never talk to you again. That inventory of the waiting room always makes sitting there a little less nerve-racking, although the moment they bellow your name, all heads turning in your direction as everyone tries to size up what kind of mutant substances you must be carting around, all sense of calm is immediately lost.
On this day, I was led to a treatment room and left there to read the HMO's "Patient's Bill of Rights," which regrettably said nothing about being entitled to a shot of Demerol if I convinced the nurse coming in to take my vital signs that it felt as if someone had mistaken my ballocks for marshmallows and cooked them over a camp fire. The pain grew increasingly worse, so when a young woman in a white coat walked in and introduced herself as my doctor, then asked me to describe my problem, I knew I had to be entirely truthful. "No problem at all," I said, wondering why my first-ever encounter with a female physician couldn't have been for something like bunions. "Forgive me for wasting your time. I feel just fine now."
Like all good doctors, she sensed my anxiety and discomfort and immediately sought to gain my trust, quell my fears. "Don't be such a wimp," she said curtly. "Women go through this all the time. It's no big deal."
This, of course, put me right at ease, and when I described my symptoms she said she suspected one of two things--either an infection somewhere, which we'd try to locate with a few standard laboratory tests and then treat with antibiotics, or something to do with a testicle having been strangled, in which case we'd have to take swift action.
"Swift action?" I asked, wondering if I'd be leaving the hospital at day's end with one of my testicles floating around in a jar of formaldehyde. "What exactly do you mean by that?"
"Let's not jump the gun," she said, no doubt drawing imaginary maps of where the incision should be made. "First let's have a look."
Unfortunately, after she'd juggled the cannonball for a couple of minutes the diagnosis proved inconclusive, which meant a second opinion was required. So after a colleague came in and did some juggling of his own, I got to nonchalantly stand there in the middle of the room with my arms crossed and my pants around my ankles and listen in while two strangers discussed the state of my testicles. Not strangled, it was finally decided, but definitely gamy.
Gamy? Now there are a lot of illnesses I've worried about contracting, but a gamy testicle has never been one of them. One of my friends once had similar symptoms, and it turned out that some vein had died and clogged one of his tubes, and all he had to do was go home and masturbate a few times, which is hardly like being handed a few dozen suppositories and told that if you're vigilant in your use of these uncomfortable little things you'll be a new man by Memorial Day. Unfortunately, no one was saying a thing about renting a dirty movie, or even swallowing a little ampicillin for that matter, and I soon began to fear the worst.
"Gamy doesn't sound so good," I said. "What does it mean?"
"It's just a medical term," my doctor said, hoping to reassure me.
So is amputation, I thought, suddenly feeling even more nauseated, and so is pathogenic and malignant and elephantiasis.
As it turned out, the gaminess was just a side effect of the infection, which still had to be located. We'll need a urine sample, I was told, and after that it's party time.
Men, like women, have been given some unpleasant physical burdens to bear: having to scrape your face each morning with a sliver of dull steel is one, and having to spend your adolescence with your Adam's apple bobbing around on your neck like a Super Ball is another, and while losing your hair probably isn't as bad as losing something like your lips, for example, it nonetheless still qualifies as something that isn't particularly desirable. But it had always struck me as an unusually cruel hoax that this worthless little prostate gland was positioned within a finger's reach rather than way up there with all the other body parts that can only be examined by X rays and blood tests and CAT scans. Like most people, I've been subjected to plenty of memorable diagnostic procedures, including a fiber-optic tube down my nose and behind my vocal cords, and another one down my throat and into my stomach. But no matter how terrifying or uncomfortable those other tests may be, they pale in comparison to seeing some thick-fingered old coot pull a rubber glove out of a drawer and point to a table, where you'll have to assume the pose of a naked tackle preparing to hit the blocking sled. This 30 seconds of poking and probing had always left me feeling as if I wanted to spend the rest of my life curled up in bed with the blankets over my head, but seeing Edwina Scissorfingers stretching that latex across her digits caused every last drop of blood to flow right out of my head and leave me feeling as if I would either faint or, if I was really lucky, keel over and die.
Of course, if there's anything to revive your dulled senses and send blood careening to all your extremities, having someone grab your inflamed prostate and squeeze it like a piece of unripened fruit is it. One of my friends told me that in the middle of a prostate examination one time his doctor casually asked him if he had had the good fortune of trying a new restaurant around the corner, as if such good-natured banter would somehow take his mind off the fact that he had half a hand wedged deep inside his rectum. My hope was that this woman would not do anything similar--that she would not try to disguise the wretchedness of the moment by trying to engage me in small talk. "Hey, how about those Cubs," she'd call out to me as I was trying to stuff my eyeballs back into their sockets.
We had decided beforehand that in addition to examining the suspected origin of my problem, we'd also catch a lab sample from the massage. Unfortunately, we didn't also discuss in advance the possibility of my shirttail hanging over the lip of the specimen bottle, and naturally I couldn't see what was happening, since with every squeeze my forehead bounced off the wall like a woodpecker's beak. So after a minute or so it was back to square one. "Anything?" Doctor Scissorfingers kept yelling over my shoulder. "Not yet," I shouted back, and after three or four minutes of trying to turn my prostate into something the thickness of a moo shoo pancake she had the good sense and compassion to finally call it quits.
All that remained was a test for chlamydia, which is a relatively minor procedure that involves cramming something the size of a shish kebab skewer just far enough into your urethra that it grazes your spine. When I realized what was going to happen I got so nervous that my body got cold and rigid and began to shrivel, so when she put some sort of coal-miner-type light and magnifier around her head I figured it wasn't to look for signs of the infection, it was to look for my johnson, which had shrunk so much it was probably no longer visible to the naked eye. Be calm, I kept telling myself; just be calm and the thing will unfurl, thereby sparing me this last, horrendous bit of humiliation. But trying to be calm when someone is heading for your penis with a fencing foil is no easy matter. Sensing my anxiety as the sword was inserted, my doctor counseled me to count aloud to ten. I willingly complied, but by the time I got up around 60 I realized I'd been had.
But it was soon over, which is all that really mattered. With any luck, the antibiotics would quickly send this infection on its way and I'd be a new man, able to urinate once again without biting off two ounces of lip skin in the process. With no luck, I might have to face the same horrible fate as a friend who had to have his inflamed, antibiotic-resistant prostate massaged every single Monday morning for six consecutive months, the ordeal evoking such sympathy and admiration from his colleagues that he was greeted at work after each procedure with a standing ovation.
I wanted none of that, so I decided to take precautionary measures. "I understand that zinc may be effective in heading off prostate problems, doctor. Do you know anything about that?"
"No," she said. "I've never heard that, but I'll be happy to ask my mother about it."
"Is your mother a physician?" I asked, thinking we were on the right track here.
"No," she said, "but she reads Prevention magazine."
After that, Dr. Scissorfingers said I should schedule a follow-up appointment, which felt a little like a warden telling me that as soon as I was unstrapped from the electric chair I should make reservations for the gallows. She also said that I should plan on having a prostate examination every year, that I was old enough so that it was more or less required. This didn't exactly sit well, so I told her that I was very young for my age, that I had always lagged behind my peers in physical development, and perhaps I should postpone such annual visits for a while--maybe until about the time I had abundant tufts of hair growing from my ears. But Dr. Scissorfingers, cognizant of my lingering anxieties and trying to appear sympathetic, said it was critical, because episodes of this sort may indicate that I had a proclivity toward problems. She said that a few seconds of discomfort is a small price to pay if it might one day save my life. "Wouldn't you agree?" she said, putting a hand on my shoulder.
It's a toss-up, I thought, and headed for the door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.