Seen from the Outside In and Inside Out

When I was first getting my diagnostic mammogram, ultrasound, and ultimately biopsy for the lump I’d found, I remember being so struck by how busy the breast clinic was. The women sitting in the clinic were of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds, with differing clothing and hairstyles giving clues to our personalities. But one by one, we all changed into the same ugly, oversized, blue hospital gown and seemed to fade into the singular category of ‘Breast Clinic Patients.’ One by one, our names were called and we went back to have our ladies squished and prodded and placed on display from the outside in.

The patient’s position has to be so specific in a mammogram. The radiology technician had positioned me and told me not to move, but at some point I shifted myself just enough that she had to come back around and lift my right arm up a couple millimeters, turn my head a little more to the left, and nudge my hips just a couple of degrees back to the right. I commented how precise the position had to be, and how it must be challenging because some patients surely must get restless and scared.

“Oh yes, the woman just before you actually fainted. Some women need to take anxiety medication before they get their scans. Not everyone is as easy as you.” I was reminded that we weren’t all shuffling in a mundane line to get our passport pictures taken. Even as a patient, I had already forgotten myself that we all came in with stories so varied and shrouded in mystery to one another.

I wanted to be an easy patient for them, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t anxious too. As I interacted with different clinic staff that morning, they went about their business in a straightforward way. Not unkind by any means, but they mainly struck me as needing to be task-oriented to be in order to keep everyone on schedule.

I found myself craving comfort, though to this day I can’t even articulate exactly what I would’ve wanted or expected any of the staff to say or do. They didn’t know me, and it wasn’t actually their job to enter into some kind of side counseling session with me. I suppose this is why they suggest you bring a loved one with you to your appointments. They didn’t know which of us Breast Clinic Patients came in feeling great, feeling depressed, feeling bored, feeling terrified. They didn’t know who came in with information, misinformation, or no information about breast cancer. They didn’t have the time to tease that all out, so it made sense that the road most of the staff took with their affect was one of neutral, polite professionalism.

I didn’t fault any of the staff for simply greeting me, instructing me on what to do, and then moving me onto the next point in the process. But I do remember the radiology tech who lightly touched my arm before she moved me onto the next place I needed to go, looked me in the eye and said, “If I don’t see you again, I really, really wish you all the best.” I felt my uncertainties rise, my bewilderment looking for words, my ache for some preliminary inside assurance I knew they couldn’t give – that this was all a mixup and of course my family and I had no reason to be worried. I felt seen from the inside out, and vulnerable, and comforted. I remember her, and I’m not sure if she realizes how grateful I am for that small human gesture that went such a long way.

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