Under the Colonoscope

Me in a hospital bed, masked and hooked to an IV and doing jazz hands anyway.

Jazz hands made the I.V. hole in my arm hurt, but you understand they had to be done.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crosssover: I’m 50 now, which means it’s time to do post-youth stuff from time to time, such as throwing away AARP invitations or discussing health and/or medicine with fellow olds who coasted over the proverbial hill before you did. If you have a regular doctor, the next appointment after reaching that milestone age will inevitably lead to them recommending you have your first colonoscopy. Apparently at 50 the odds of digestive issues increase ludicrously and your colon becomes a breeding ground for monsters.

Not that I took the suggestion lightly, mind you. After we scheduled the appointment, I looked up the list of Famous Personalities Who Died from Bowel/Colo-Rectal Cancer as a reminder that medical pros aren’t kidding about this. Granted, the list is far, far shorter than the List of Deaths from Drug Overdose and Intoxication, but it’s a regrettably not-short list. Among the names that stuck out to me:

  • Chadwick Boseman
  • Kevin Conroy
  • Kirstie Alley
  • Jackie Gleason
  • Audrey Hepburn
  • Charles Schulz
  • Sorrell Booke from The Dukes of Hazzard
  • Pelé
  • Eartha Kitt
  • Robert Reed from The Brady Bunch
  • Milton Berle
  • Ted Knight
  • Richard Mulligan
  • José Ferrer
  • Vince Lombardi
  • Claude Debussy, the “Clair de Lune” guy
  • Edward Elgar, the “Pomp and Circumstance” guy
  • Film composer Jerry Goldsmith
  • Robin Gibb from the Bee Gees
  • Industrial rock drummer William Rieflin (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M.)
  • Teddy Pendergrass
  • Comedian Pat Paulsen
  • Philippines President Corazon Aquino
  • Elizabeth Montgomery, star of Bewitched
  • Carolyn Jones, the original Morticia Addams
  • Lois Maxwell, the original Miss Moneypenny
  • Meshach Taylor from Designing Women
  • Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon and recurring voice actor Russi Taylor
  • Screenwriter William Goldman
  • UK Prime Ministers Neville Chamberlain and Harold Wilson
  • Simon McCorkindale, a.k.a. TV’s Manimal
  • Indy 500 announcer Bob Jenkins
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles
  • The Price is Right announcer Rod Roddy
  • Good Morning America film critic Joel Siegel
  • Italian comics artist Hugo Pratt, creator of Corto Maltese
  • Alto Reed, the sax player from Bob Seger’s band
  • YouTube’s John Bain, a.k.a. TotalBiscuit
  • Tammy Faye Bakker Messner
  • Mary Kay Letourneau
  • H.P. Lovecraft

…and more, more, sadly more on that particular In Memoriam roster. There’s also the shorter list of famous personalities who experienced one of those conditions yet lived on (though in some cases later succumbing to a different cause of death):

  • Ronald Reagan
  • Tina Turner
  • the Queen Mother
  • Sharon Osborne
  • Julie Walters, a.k.a. Ron Weasley’s ferocious mom
  • Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson

…and so on. Lately I’ve been in a mood to mess with my routines, cross some items off my to-do lists, and live longer, not necessarily in that order. My doctor and I put off the deed till well after the end of Oscars season, and past the following week in March already reserved for my wife Anne and me to enjoy a Very Special Event, which we’ll cover in future entries. I made the appointment for the very next Friday after that, which was St. Patrick’s Day. I’m neither a dedicated observer nor even a drinker, so the only unfortunate holiday-related consequence is that I never had an excuse to wear my St. Paddy’s necktie this year. All told, SPD 2023 wasn’t the best holiday ever. I went as far as making sure my shirt had some green on it, but I otherwise spent the day preoccupied by more pressing issues.

For those who’ve never had a colonoscopy, or who had one years ago but wonder if anything’s changed in the procedure since then, or who just had one last week and could use a sympathetic colon-buddy, I can tell you what my experience was. Be advised if you’re the sort of immortal-feeling youth who cringes and crawls under the nearest table whenever you’re surrounded by older relatives having very loud, unfiltered conversations about their medical conditions, this may not be the entry for you, except maybe the part you already read above where I like to think I adequately stressed the usefulness of the procedure. If you’re in a position to get one when Father Time beckons in your direction with one pointy, bony finger while holding a plastic , go for it. Just…y’know, don’t expect Best Week Ever.

My personal preparation was supposed to begin seven days prior to Procedure Day. Due to the aforementioned Very Special Event plus a mix-up in email addresses, I didn’t receive my full set of instructions (including important trivia such as where the specialist’s office even was) until Tuesday the 14th. The day before that, my first bit of foreshadowing was a mysterious automated notification from a nearby pharmacy that I had a prescription ready for pickup. Expecting nothing else, I assumed it was related and dutifully picked it up, only to find that, due to those same communication issues, they’d sent it somewhere out-of-network for me. Paying extra sucked, but I was short on negotiation time.

Once the instructions got to me, I began immediately. Step One for the days prior to Colonoscopy Day was to begin a temporary low-fiber diet and cut out the following foods all week long:

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Raw vegetables
  • Fruit with skins or seeds
  • Dried fruits, regardless of skins or seeds
  • Whole wheat and whole grain
  • Brown or wild rice
  • Popcorn

This was bad news for the banana I’d brought to work as a mid-morning snack. This was even worse news for Anne’s Taco Tuesday dinner plan. I had to skip the lettuce, tomatoes, raw onions, and my usual whole wheat tortillas. That left taco meat, shredded cheese, sour cream, and sharing everyone else’s hard taco shells. I coped.

Wednesday the 15th was more of the same. I basically relived the guidelines of my 2004-2005 low-carb diet for the sake of hopefully compensating for starting the low-fiber diet so late.

Thursday the 16th was The Worst. Colonoscopy Eve required a limited, rather mean all-liquid diet. From awakening onward I was permitted only the following substances:

  • Absolutely no milk or dairy products
  • Absolutely no juices with pulp (which are gross to me anyway)
  • Absolutely no alcohol (ditto)
  • Absolutely nothing red, blue, or purple
  • Sodas, Kool-Aid, or Crystal Light of any other color
  • Jell-O of any other color
  • Popsicles with pulp (they make them WITH PULP? ewww)
  • Chicken broth or bouillon
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Good-old-fashioned water

End of approved list. Now verboten were my bottle of diet grape juice and my 12-pack of Strawberries & Cream Dr. Pepper Zero Sugar. The liquid diet wasn’t the same as all-out fasting, which Anne has mastered and which counts among my Kryptonite-level weaknesses. I tried not to obsess on it. Prayer helped, as did wrestling with the knowledge that millions of other people worldwide have managed to do this without giving up their mind’s steering wheel to their Inside Out Anger.

On Anne’s advice I’d made certain to get a good night’s sleep Wednesday night, because I knew Thursday night would be one of tumultuous sleep deprivation that could turn me feral by Friday morning, if the day’s liquid diet didn’t do that first. I awoke Thursday morning and began prepping the prescription substance I’d picked up Monday — a 4-liter plastic jug filled with a white powder charmlessly called Polyethylene Glycol 3350 Electrolyte Solution, designed to, shall we say, clean out my system. I had to fill it with four liters of water, stick it in the fridge all day, then come back to it later in the evening. It smelled like lemons grown in a cruel lab.

The work day passed mostly without incident. A thermos full of decaf (with sweetener and non-dairy creamer) got me through the first few hours. Not until 11 a.m. did I let any excess irritation slip and damage anyone else around me. I regretted it instantly and thought to myself that, were I called out on it, I’d say my stomach was puppeteering me like Remy from Ratatouille.

Shortly after 12 noon, my coworkers invited me to tag long for lunch at a place that makes the best applewood chicken salad around. I declined and explained why with only slight whimpering. They in turn expressed sympathy and began telling their own colonoscopy war stories at length. Suddenly it’s like I’m in a platoon reunion but instead of “Jerry” or “Charlie” the mutual enemy in their reminiscing was intestinal polyps. Lunch was instead two cans of Campbell’s chicken broth and some Gatorade Zero — surprisingly filling. I’m not a soup fan, but it got me through the rest of the work day.

At 4 p.m. sharp, next step in the Colonoscopy Eve procedure was to pop two Dulcolax tablets. Anne let me use her leftovers from when she’d had her own Very First Colonoscopy a while back. It’s cool for husband and wife to have things in common, for better or worse.

Supper was more chicken broth, but a generic store brand. Campbell’s was far better. Beyond this point, no further liquids were permitted for the rest of the evening except water and fully transparent liquids. I had no others on hand. Water was fine.

At 6 p.m. sharp began the next step: I had to drink eight ounces of the chilled PEG 3350 Electrolyte solution through a straw every ten minutes for eight glasses in a row, the equivalent of an entire 2-liter bottle of something that didn’t suck, over the course of 70 minutes. To distract me from this kegger starring Country Time Lemonade’s evil twin, we tried distracting me by watching the latest episode of TV’s Picard, an absolute banger called “Imposters” starring Todd Stashwick and Admiral Shakespeare, in that order. Mostly it worked. Between Paramount+’s preset commercial interruptions and my own impromptu pauses to run to the bathroom, we eventually got through it so Anne could finally leap onto Reddit and catch up on convos with fellow Trek fans. My tongue was coated for hours afterward, but the bathroom runs ceased around 9-ish or so.

At 10 p.m. sharp, two more Dulcolax popped as instructed. From there I had a 5-hour window to get the longest possible stretch of uninterrupted sleep that I’d have in that entire evening. I sequestered myself in our bedroom with bathroom access while Anne slept in the living room with custody of the TV. I fell asleep around 10:30 and inexplicably awoke at 1:50, over an hour earlier than necessary. Except when bodily urges dictated, I laid there like a slug. It was my only defense.

3 a.m. sharp: I had to commence consuming the other 2-liter of chilled PEG 3350 Electrolyte solution at exactly the same pace and quantities over yet another 70 minutes. While Anne slept peacefully safe from harm, my distraction of choice for this half of the lemon-floor-wax-sipping regimen was this week’s new comics. I got a lot of reading done in between glasses and over the next 20-30 minutes after that wretched “drink” was depleted and internalized at last. Until sometime after 5 I spent more time in the bathroom than in bed. From this point forward I was permitted absolutely no more fluids, not even water, until after the colonoscopy was over. I was afraid to fall asleep because I’m a high-decibel snorer and often wake up dehydrated after a typical evening of unconscious oral buzzsawing.

Between 5:30 and 6 I fell asleep one more time for about 10-15 minutes, but thankfully wasn’t thirsty when I reawakened. At one point I snuggled tightly into the covers and laid their feeling as if God were holding me in his arms. I refused to move an inch, even when my bowels once again rang their annoying internal bell several times in a row. Begrudgingly, though, I heeded their stupid call yet again.

By 6:10 all fluid expulsions had achieved the exact consistency and color that the procedure required, and my gastrointestinal tract finally clocked out for the rest of the morning. When I emerged from the bedroom shortly after 6, I was bizarrely chipper as I greeted Anne and dunked the plastic PEG container in the garage trashcan like an NBA pro who now felt several pounds lighter.

We arrived at the endoscopy center in time for my 7 a.m. check-in, preceding the official colonoscopy starter pistol at 8 a.m. Within moments I was shown to my stretcher and changed into an embarrassing robe. Anne joined me in the room for a bit, providing a moment’s peace which we both spent playing quietly on our respective phones. As I continued this rather lonely experience, which had intensified in bedroom isolation over the night, she knew the best thing she could do was offer the simple comfort of companionship.

Me in a hospital bed with a mask and IV, playing on my phone.

Portrait of a patient happy to realize the worst part of the day was mostly behind him. Mostly.

Shortly before 8 I finally met the specialist who’d oversee the procedure, who — I Am Not Retroactively Making This Up — reminded me strongly of Lance Reddick from The Wire, albeit with slightly more hair, sterner and with slightly less of a knowing smile. He checked my I.V., gave a standard preamble, and went to go warm up or flip some gadget-switches on or whatever. Then my nurse wheeled me on the stretcher into the actual colonoscopizing room. This, I noted to myself, was the very first time in my life I’ve ever been wheeled around on a stretcher. I could hear a muted “wheeee!” from one of the voices in my head.

Once in the room, I turned onto my left side. The nurse adjusted the pillow perfectly beneath my head and neck. The doctor moved my I.V.-attached right arm to my side.

Then: darkness. I hadn’t even realized they’d begun the anesthesia.

Around 9:30 I awakened, but the next several minutes are hazy memories. I recall being poured and handed a cup of Sprite Zero. I recall taking a single sip from it.

Me still in the stretcher, conked out, drink in hand, somehow not spilling.

Then, once again: darkness.

Split-second memory fragments are all I have, motionless snapshots. Putting on pants, but nothing else. Plopping down in a wheelchair. Riding in the elevator. Switching to Anne’s car. In hindsight I know the anesthesia had not worn off. Like, hardly at all.

The doctor had handed all paperwork to Anne with results and further instructions. She asked a few questions; they helpfully answered. I knew none of this.

The final results: nothing found, nary a single polyp or cause for alarm, apart from “small internal hemorrhoids”. It was basically a clean bill of health, and the doctor explicitly wrote that I’d be good to go for the next ten years. I knew none of this.

In the paperwork they included a cute thank-you card signed by all the nurses who’d accompanied me through various stages of the morning. I knew none of this.

Among the post-procedural instructions were no driving for the rest of the day, which I knew; and the checkmarked note, “Eat lightly for the remainder of the day.” I definitely didn’t know this.

All we knew was, when Anne’s colonoscopy ordeal had ended, her anesthesia had worn off and she was starving. We’d dined at the Cracker Barrel down the street and she savored every bite, of which there were many. For my own celebration and return to solid foods, we drove out to a nearby breakfast joint I’m rather fond of. I ordered stuffed French toast, which sounded yummy and possibly modest.

What I got instead was a meal fit for a lumberjack — one who was hale and hearty and could sit up straight without bobble-heading around in place.

Four slices of French toast topped with everything mentioned in the caption. It is HUGE.

Strawberries! Bananas! Nuts! Whipped cream! Mascarpone between the slices! Possibly more ingredients I’m forgetting!

I was four or five bites into this feast when I was hit with a symptom I hadn’t experienced all week long: nausea. I excused myself to the bathroom and…well, at least I made it inside the door.

I pause here to pretend I don’t recall the next few minutes and spare you the detailed reality.

By the time I returned to the table, Anne had already paid for our meals and had them bring a takeout box for what I was clearly not going to finish right now. Anne brought me home and within seconds I laid down for a much-needed three-hour nap. That was all the time I needed for the remaining drugs to wear off and give me my life back.

I emerged from hiding and finished the rest of what I could now appreciate as an otherwise excessively glorious meal of fruits, breads, and dairy products. To absolutely no joy whatsoever this is also the moment when I learned the real Lance Reddick had passed away on this very St. Patrick’s Day, far too young at age 60, “suddenly” and from “natural causes”. This is probably not code for colo-rectal cancer, but it could be code for my doctor somehow stealing his essence from afar.

me posing with Lance Reddick, no jazz hands.

Flashback to that time I met the esteemed Mr. Reddick at HorrorHound Cincinnati 2019.

I grieved online with fellow fans of The Wire, Fringe, and the John Wick series. And I moved on, secure that I would live to see another day and elated that I now possess documented permission to put off my next colonoscopy till age 60. With the exception of Mr. Reddick’s passing and that horrid tongue-coating that didn’t fully dissolve till Saturday, it was all worth it.

4 responses

  1. Wow! What an entry of MCC! and, as always, my thanks for your writing of it and sharing of it w/the world!

    I just wanted to point out the additional poignancy or irony (you choose!) in the fact that Mr. Reddick’s two children are, respectively, a nurse and a paramedic. See this clip. Or don’t. I’m not in charge!


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