Do I really need an endoscopy and a colonoscopy?
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About five years ago, I was getting pretty sick from a mystery illness. Within the space of a year at the time, I went from being a solid 235 pounds with low body fat to about 185 pounds. My joy of going to the gym was eroding fast, as my energy and strength waned with flu-like symptoms hitting me several times a week. At best, I could muster a casual workout. For someone whose self-esteem partly stemmed from their fitness, this was a blow to my self-image.
Shortly after losing so much weight I started coughing up a little bit of blood now and then. I knew I should have been worried, but my inside voice kept telling me otherwise. The first time I coughed up blood I immediately thought of the movie Wyatt Earp for some reason. I felt like Doc Holliday during his final days. More alarming than coughing up blood was blood appearing in my stools. Blood coming out of both ends! I felt it was either time to go see another doctor, or possibly drive myself straight to the morgue.
During this time my relationships were suffering because of my health problems. I didn’t go out much with friends or family as I just didn’t feel up to it. A girl I was striking up a friendly relationship with wanted to start dating me, but I turned her down because I felt I just didn’t have the energy (and maybe there was a good chance I was dying). Plus, I imagine for her, dating the sick boy would not be much fun. In hindsight, I know it would have been healthier to embrace my vulnerabilities, rather than give up on the potential of a relationship.
Besides ignoring a potential girlfriend, I was not sharing how sick I was feeling with anyone. Not even with my close friends or family. Even today I am not sure exactly why I didn’t share. Maybe I didn’t want to appear vulnerable, which is what I felt would happen if I told them. Luckily, I knew it was time to speak with a medical professional about what was going on; even if the conversation was going to be a little awkward.
I had been seeing many doctors for my mystery illness over the course of the year. Each of them ran tests and couldn’t find out what was going on. I quickly learned there is nothing more frustrating – at least for me – than trying to get across to a physician what it is like to have the flu five days a week. And then being told it was probably the common cold, or that I needed to rest more, or perversely exercise more was a bit too much to comprehend! This was the first time I recognized most doctors don’t have the best social skills. They were talking, but not listening.
Do I really need an endoscopy and a colonoscopy?
But once the blood started appearing at both ends, I had no choice. I decided to give one of the doctors another chance and met with him to discuss my bloody situation. We made some small talk about still not knowing what my illness was when I decided to drop the bomb on him about coughing up blood and having it in my stools. Within minutes, he scheduled me for an upper endoscopy and a colonoscopy. The thought of tubes with tiny cameras on them being shoved in both places did not make me feel any better. I started thinking that Doc Holliday actually had it a little bit better than I did.
After my appointment, I only had a few days before the procedures were going to take place, and I used that remaining time worrying about how bad the colonoscopy would be (a friendly suggestion: don’t type “bad side effects colonoscopy” into Google or Bing). In my head, the very idea of having a colonoscopy was affecting my perceptions of my mortality. I was still in my mid-30s, and I was wondering what I must have done wrong in a previous life to deserve something like this.
The Thursday night before my endoscopy and colonoscopy, I had to drink an amazingly powerful and foul-tasting laxative drink. I spent more than a few hours in the bathroom. I had to drink one liter around 5 pm the night before the colonoscopy, and then another at about 2 am, nine hours later. I understood the concept behind it. They wanted the colon to be as empty as possible, so they can see if anything was wrong in there. However, that drink just about killed me. I manned up and drank the first one, just barely, but the other one at 2 am, I ended up dumping down the drain. I’m sure it probably cleared my drain as well as it cleared my intestines.
The joy of an endoscopy and a colonoscopy
That morning, as they prepped me by having me climb into one of those embarrassing hospital gowns, I tried to tune everything out around me. One of the nurses came to me and asked if I would allow another man to go first. He was an elderly gentleman, and he was anxious to have his colonoscopy done. I agreed to it but then regretted it as soon as I heard the man screaming about 15 minutes later as the pain was too much for him. I had heard stories about how aliens would often abduct people from their homes and do experiments on them with prodding and injections. I figured this would be kind of like that, minus the cool story about being able to tell people I was abducted by aliens.
As they gave me the anesthesia medicine in my IV, I remember they had me roll over on my side. I groggily asked them if they were going to do both the upper endoscopy and colonoscopy at the same time, and if they were, could they carve their initials inside me where the two scopes would meet. I have always thought of myself as a funny guy and often used my humor to get through even the most desperate times. But nobody in the room even cracked a smile. Although in their defense, I was probably slurring my words so badly they just couldn’t understand me.
For some reason, I was trying my hardest to stay awake because I knew they could not start everything until I was out cold. I was like a little kid trying to stay awake on Christmas Eve to sneak a peek at Santa. I asked the doctor if this was going to hurt. He said it was not going to be pleasant but being out for it will make everything bearable. Eventually, I did fall asleep, but I woke up twice during the procedures. Not good.
The first time I woke up was when they were trying to blow me up like a balloon during the colonoscopy. Apparently, the medical team was forcing carbon dioxide into my lower bowels. All I remember was that it hurt a lot for a few seconds, and then I went back to sleep. The other time I awoke was when I started gagging on the tube as they put it down my throat for the endoscopy. It felt as if I was choking on a garden hose. Luckily, I passed out after about ten seconds of thinking I was about to die.
It seemed like it was a week later when I woke up in the outpatient recovery room, but it was probably only an hour at most. When the doctor came in, I tiredly told him that the colonoscopy was not nearly as much fun as I thought it would be. Again, he did not smile at all. He started talking and informing me how things went, but under that medication, I forgot what he was saying ten seconds later. For the next 24 hours, it really did feel like I had amnesia.
The results of the endoscopy and a colonoscopy
When I finally started to regain my senses the next morning in the comfort of my own home, I luckily had the report to read to refresh my memory on what the doctor had said. There was precancerous material in my throat called Barrett’s Esophagus, about 13 centimeters of it. The colonoscopy did not show anything alarming, so I was given a clean bill of health. The blood I was coughing up was from my throat slightly tearing from my coughing fits. The tissue was damaged and easily torn. However, even with this news, I was severely disappointed. The doctor informed me that this would not explain the chronic flu symptoms I was experiencing. The suffering and searching for an answer continue.
In the long story of my search for an answer, my upper endoscopy and colonoscopy I guess are side-shows. But they are an essential sideshow. I could not hide the procedure from my family, so I finally started to open up about my struggle with the mystery-illness. First with my family, and then my friends. Sharing news about my medical condition was a highly sensitive and surprisingly a bit emotional one for me. Although these first disclosures were uncomfortable, after all, I had been hiding it for some time while pretending to be well. The discomfort was worth it. I believe no longer having to hide my illness is helping me on my journey to a better self.