Cat, Boat, Ball

by Mark Dvorak

The waiting room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital is a beehive of activity. Pagers buzz, names are shouted, cell phones erupt, patients cough and talk in tones both humorous and anxious. Faces are fixed with concern, eyes focused on far away things. The main hallway is a parade of people of every conceivable size and shape, in every imaginable condition, all here to seek treatment. 

There are wheel chair rollers and crutch wielders. There are limpers and wobblers and cane leaners both skinny and large. There are bandaged arms and broken legs, neck braces and body braces. There are uncovered bruises and once-ugly wounds well on their way toward healing. Everywhere there are nervous family members. 

A while ago an older couple tottered past the waiting alcove at a very slow pace. The gent used a walker and had a ball cap on his head that didn’t seem to belong there. His wife was spry and wore a print flowered blouse. A large tote hung from her one arm while her other draped around the arm of her man. She talked quietly to him the whole time they passed my view, and he called back to her, “what?” at regular intervals, the last one heard after they had disappeared down the hallway.

It has been seven full days of phone calls, doctor appointments, eye exams, brain scans, consultations and deep discussions about this life and its current fragile state. If humor alone was the measure of wellness, we’d have been in the clear a long time ago. But humor alone is not enough. You also need to find people who know what they are doing, who have studied the fibers of the human body and explored the channels of the human brain. And among the things we’ve learned so far is that much is still unknown about the brain. These good doctors and assistants though, maintain a keen suspicion and have developed both simple and complex methods for detecting different kinds of trouble within the human noodle.

An MRI is a series of images that give doctors an overview of what lies inside the cranium. An MRA uses both a magnetic field and radio waves to produce a different, more detailed picture. A CAT scan produces a three-dimensional image and is useful in informing surgeons before the cutting and snipping phase of the procedure. It helps them plan an exact route of entry and an avenue of access to the problem.

The problem is an aneurysm. An aneurysm is a weakening of the wall of an artery which causes it to bulge like a tiny balloon. An aneurysm a few millimeters in size will be monitored on an on-going basis. An aneurysm of five millimeters or more is serious business and should be treated right away. The aneurysm in our case is a whopping ten millimeters. To talk about an aneurysm that size is like talking about a state the size of Florida.

Today’s series of tests include another blood test and a CAT scan. They are the graduation present for having passed yesterday’s exam where the medical assistant entered the room and after introducing herself, announced that in a moment she would list three words that the patient was to try to remember for later on. She then asked the patient bunches of questions like her age and address and what year she was born, and what year it is now. The medical assistant made the patient roll her eyes this way then that, and held up two fingers in one position then three fingers in another, then two again in still another, each time asking the patient to identify how many fingers were being held up. The assistant wiggled her fingers to each side of the patients head testing for peripheral vision, then tickled the patients arms and the bottoms of her feet. She made the patient wiggle her toes and stretch her arms out and walk to and fro across the room. A little rubber doctor’s hammer appeared from her pocket and the medical assistant began hammering at imaginary tacks on the patients elbows, forearms and knees. 

Between imagining what the medical assistant might be hunting for and wondering which maneuver the patient might next be asked to execute, a real drama began to unfold. The whole series of questions, movements, wiggling, tickling and hammering couldn’t have taken more than five minutes, but to someone sitting in the room watching it seemed much longer. Then the patient was asked to recall the three words announced earlier in the examination. The winning answer: cat, boat, ball.

7.09.09

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