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The Waiting Room

In case my mother is reading this, I'll cut to the chase: I'm fine.

But it's a roll of the dice. Anyone who has had a mammogram knows that. And while the Grim Reaper may not yet have me on speed-dial, he has the phone book in easy reach.

The date is last Thursday. I drive to the hospital about fifteen minutes from my house. It has been 1 3/4 years since my last mammogram, and almost two months since I booked the earliest available appointment. Two months of playing the torturous mind game with myself: What if...? What if this is the time I come up snake eyes?

I think of my friend Patricia, who is coming up on eight years as a survivor. I think of my friend Judy, whose surgery must have been a decade ago.

And I think of my friend Anita, who died in April 2001.

A roll of the dice.

They tell you to be at registration half an hour early. I am there exactly at 10:15 a.m., handing the receptionist my referral, insurance card, and driver's license. She hands me a beeper and points me to the waiting room.

Where the TV is blaring. I think it might be "The View." I give the TV room a wide berth and sit down on the far side of the fake shrubbery.

And wait.

I find it impossible to read anything in a waiting room, so I don't even try picking up a magazine. I hold the beeper for a while and stare at it, but finally put it down on the seat next to me.

An older woman sits near me, and a younger woman (her daughter?) joins her a few minutes later. The older woman asks, "Where did you have to park?" The answer: "Siberia." Sounds about right; the parking lot had been crowded when I arrived, too.

I wonder what they are all here for. Driving past the front door on arrival, I have a sudden flashback to all the times in the past two years when I visited my parents in the hospital of my old home town. I almost feel I am back there; the sensation is disorienting.

In the waiting room, beepers go off but none of them is mine. A man sits down across from me with a paperback of one of the Lord of the Rings books. It somehow cheers me to look at Viggo Mortensen's handsome face on the cover, and I am sorry when the man leaves.

My husband has just gotten back from a business trip to Albuquerque, and I begin thinking about airplanes that have to keep circling, waiting to land.

I, too, am in a holding pattern.

A friendly young woman from Diagnostic Imaging sits down by me with a clipboard and a pen, saying her department is a bit mobbed and could I fill out the form here -- front and back, please?

The front of the form features a huge diagram of two breasts, on which I'm supposed to indicate any lumps or bumps or moles. I look around and pull the clipboard a little closer to me. I begin writing my doctor's name, my emergency contact, date of last period, date and place of last mammogram.

I am aware that one of the registration women bustling about is too cheerful, laughing too loudly with her clients in her little glass-walled cubicle. Oh God, I think. Please don't let me get her.

The friendly young woman from Diagnostic Imaging is back to see if I'm done yet and if I have any questions. I do have one or two, but I'm not about to ask them here in the lobby. She has to come back one more time before I'm done.

At last, thirty-five minutes after checking in, my beeper makes a loud, harsh noise. I return to the front desk and am told Marie (or is it Heidi or Helen?) will be with me in a moment.

She appears shortly after, pulls my chart, and directs me to her cubicle. Luckily it's not Miss Too-Cheerful. This one is appropriately neutral; I can deal with her. As I sit behind her desk, she studies my file on her computer, asks me questions, hands me back my cards.

Do you know where you're going? she asks. I tell her I do.

The entrance to Diagnostic Imaging is behind the receptionist, behind the cubicles. I walk in and see the department's waiting room is empty of patients. It is also, I notice, green. So is the furniture. I comment on it to the technician who breezes through to give me a hospital johnny and direct me to a changing room.

Yes, she says approvingly, we've redecorated, and we're still adding new things.

I suggest a hot tub.

She agrees and adds, "And a masseuse!"

"Now we're talking!"

I take the johnny (pale blue, with a tiny pattern) into the changing room. As directed, I strip to the waist, stuff my clothes on the locker's top shelf and hang up my coat. I tie the johnny in the front -- badly. I figure it doesn't matter since I'll spend most of my time untying it anyway.

While I'm waiting on the sofa, looking stunning (not) in my rumpled johnny, an elderly woman comes in and sits down. A moment later, an older man emerges from the inner room. The woman and I immediately look at each other.

A man?

"Well," she says when he is out of earshot. "Sometimes it happens..."

Another woman emerges from the other mammography room. She catches my gaze as she opens the door to leave and says, "Have a good one." The look in her eyes says much more.

My turn comes. Having stowed my camera in a cupboard outside the mammography room (I ask first), I go into the room and found out I've entered a new, high-tech world. The images are now digital instead of film, and the radiologist reviews them the same day. Even as we speak, the hospital is digitizing the old films.

Still, the hospital wants you to know the philosophy is the same. A sign on the wall states reassuringly, "We compress because we care."


That morning, I had explained the process to my husband. "You know a waffle iron?" He says yes.

"I'm the waffle."

The friendly young female technician ushers me in and the process begins: Take your right arm out of the sleeve. Lean forward. Put your hand here on the machine. Pull your gown back with your other hand. Scoot in a little closer. Are you okay? Don't move. Hold your breath. There! Now take your left arm out...

We do this familiar dance several times, occasionally pausing so she can check the image to see if she has everything the radiologist needs.

I don't always have the nerve to do this, but this time I watch her face. Carefully. I study her as she studies the image. Does she look neutral? Concerned? For someone in that job, is it possible to make your face an impassive mask so you don't give anything away?

She leans closer to the screen at one point, but I don't see any obvious slips. Then we enter the closing phase of the appointment, where I have to make very general inquiries when I really want to scream, "DAMMIT, LADY, AM I GOING TO LIVE?"

I restrain myself. I ask how long it takes to be notified (a week or two, she says), and I ask what is the earliest I can contact my primary care doctor's office for a verbal result; she says, "The middle of next week."

The technician says cordially, "It was good to meet you." She doesn't remember she has met me before. I remember her because she is gentle and seems to be good at what she does. (I hope!)

I reverse my steps -- pick up my purse, retrieve my camera, slip out of the johnny and into my street clothes, don my coat, stuff the johnny into the laundry hamper.

The elderly woman is still sitting on the sofa. "Have a good one," she says.

I wish her the same.

The crisp, clean white envelope arrives this afternoon. "We are pleased to inform you that the results of your digital screening mammography...showed no evidence of cancer." (It's the closest they'll come to an all-clear.) The letter recommends I return in a year.

I can hardly wait.

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