My eyes caught sight of the sign. It was hanging at the end of the hospital corridor, a corridor I must have been down several times in the past for various ante-natal appointments. I’d never noticed it until today. I hadn’t even heard of the word until now.
“Coloscopy…, colosalpy… Closocapy… How the heck do I say that?” I muttered to myself. As a person not used to struggling for words (hah!) who was rather proud of her A grade for Latin ‘O’ level, I was slightly embarrassed that I couldn’t pronounce it.
Obediently following the sign, I quickly turned right, then left, then right again recognising a familiar corridor before being directed right into the puzzlingly named ‘Colposcopy’. Handing in my letter to the receptionist, I hoped she’d give me a clue as to how to pronounce the name. No such luck.
“Take a seat down there and have a read of this,” she said, handling me a leaflet whilst nodding in the direction of another corridor.
Feeling a little like Alice who’d fallen down a rabbit hole and found an entirely new thing, I sat down. Hospitals are like that, I thought. Full of departments and words the average person has never heard of until they have the misfortune of developing a serious ailment. I mean why write “Oncology” when a simple “Cancer Unit” will do? Apart from scaring us all with the truth writ large, I guess it keeps the consultants, the White Rabbits of Alice’s Wonderland, on their superior pedestals as the Ones who know.
I unpeeled my coat and scarf and scanned the leaflet. “Routine procedure, CIN 1…., CIN 2…., giant binoculars called a colposcopy.” Ah ha, so that’s what it means. My word-curious mind was appeased; my nerves less so.
Only four days earlier, with a weekend sandwiched in between, I had been to see the GP about a small but persistent irritation in ‘the ladies department’. Concerned about a possible abnormality, I left being told that I’d need to “pop down to Obs & Gynae to check everything’s ok.” She threw out the phrase in that light and breezy way that doctors use to put their patients at ease but most of us see through.
Two hours later, whilst browsing the shops for Christmas presents, I received a phone call from the hospital booking me in for an appointment. “Gee!” I thought ,“That was quick.”
This was clearly far from a minor check up; the ‘C’ word was written all over this. “Ok, let’s not panic” I told myself. I mean what’s the point when a) I had no solid evidence of any reason to panic, and b) it could ruin the wild unadulterated fun that is hosting Christmas for the relatives? I shoved the idea to the part of my brain marked ‘For later’.
But then what should arrive on my doormat the next day but a letter confirming the appointment? I stared at it with such surprise you’d think it had been delivered by owl. I mean when have I ever received a hospital letter with such lighting speed? And in the week before Christmas! This is the NHS. I found myself searching the doormat for feathers…..
Back in the hospital, as my mind wandered from the leaflet to the 101 things on my ‘week before Christmas to-do list’, a door opened and a small, smiley Philippino lady emerged, asking me gaily to step inside the small treatment room. Inside I found two other women, both of African origin, both in nurses uniform, and both as jolly as the Philippino. “Ooh good,” I thought subconsciously. Having travelled through much of Africa and parts of Asia, I knew this would be a friendly room.
All three of them gave me their full, kind attention. I couldn’t decide if the room was too small, or if there were too many women in it. I decided probably both. This appeared to be that most unheard of phenomenon in the NHS: a well staffed, or dare I say it, maybe overstaffed facility.
Greeting me like I’d come to a young mum’s pamper party, I was asked to sit down and make myself comfortable. Putting the patient at ease was clearly their number one task, which, like the GP’s tone, I saw straight through but this time I welcomed. Up to a point. I mean, I was very grateful for them taking so much trouble to put a potentially seriously nervous woman at ease, but it unnerved me somewhat. Was that the Cheshire Cat I saw grinning at me from the top of the grey cabinet?
As the procedure was explained and conducted, their individual roles became a little clearer: the one doing the procedure (the Prodder), the one keeping me distracted (the Chatter) and the one showing me where to get ready and clean up (the Cleaner Upper).
The chatting continued as I stripped off behind a modest curtain. The Prodder then tactfully told me to position myself in what can only be described as a very untactful position.
“Sit back and relax. You can watch what I’m doing on the TV monitor if you like,” she added.
“I think I probably will pass on that,” I hastily replied.
I wondered if she might offer me a range of complimentary drinks whilst she was at it: “This is your Captain speaking. We will soon be taking off, passing over some unchartered territory. It could be a bumpy ride so just sit back, grab a complimentary drink from our drinks trolley and enjoy the view.” This was one ride I was happy to decline a window seat for.
Thankfully the ride was short and smooth and despite my efforts, I did end up taking a sneak peak. Well how could I not when The Prodder was giving a detailed guided tour?!
I was ok. Nothing too much to worry about.Cervical cancer it was certainly not – at least at this stage. Come back in a year when we can double check that a small issue has cleared up, I was told.
“And here’s some information on such and such as I can tell you’re the type to go away and look it up on the internet anyway,” she quipped with a sparkle in her eye. The others chuckled but not in an unprofessional way. Lord, I’d been sussed out and I’d hardly said a thing!
“Take this form to the reception desk and if you wouldn’t mind there’s an evaluation form to fill in too”. “Of course,” I said. A service this good deserves 5 stars in every category.
With a chorus of “Bye!” “Have a good Christmas!” and “Take care” I closed the door behind me. Back in the corridor once more, the silence and sobriety struck me. Rather like Alice must have done, I blinked to adjust to the new reality.
Handing in the paper work to the receptionist, something caught my eye as I turned to leave. To my right was another waiting room filled with women of varying ages, some with children, others with an accompanying male partner. The words ‘Breast cancer unit’ hung above them. Yes, here they actually spell it out.
Something else hung over them less obvious: a sombre, resigned atmosphere, jolting me out of my relieved, slightly elated state. My fortune at not being one of those women sitting in that waiting room struck me hard. This was no Wonderland for these women.
Less than 3 years ago, my oldest best friend would have sat in a similar waiting room, later to be told that yes, she had early-stage breast cancer. Thankfully she is now almost fully recovered and living a very full and vibrant life with her 2 young children and husband. But her experience (and that of another good friend) gave me a glimpse of how heavy and difficult a time might lie ahead for these women.
As I walked back up the corridor I’d fallen down an hour earlier, I hoped they’d catch a glimpse of the same Cheshire Cat I’d met in Colposcopy when it was their turn to be assessed by the White Rabbit. Lord knows they’d need it.
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