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Don't Let The Fear of Colonoscopies Kill You

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

ScottWheeler1Scott Wheeler giving the thumbs up with Betsy Zorn, RN and Paula Geil, RN.

 I don’t know of many people who don’t dread getting a colonoscopy. It’s just not most of our idea of a good time, but it really is a necessary evil.
In 2003 I interviewed a man on a mission. His mission was to educate people about the importance of colonoscopies. He hoped to save a few lives while he was at it.  This man’s name was Harold Crowe of Derby.
Harold wasn’t a prominent doctor using years of college to convince people of the merits of the procedure. Instead, he was a well-known smalltime car dealer. No, he didn’t have a bunch of degrees to his name, but he had a whole lot of knowledge of colon cancer. You see, when I interviewed him he was in his final days of life, dying of colon cancer. Harold accepted his fate, including accepting the fact that not getting a colonoscopy when he should have probably shortened his life (typically when a person turns 50, or earlier if colon cancer runs in their family). Instead of bemoaning his pending fate, he took it upon himself to educate people about the importance of colonoscopies .While losing his life to cancer, he was trying to save other lives.
 I suspect Harold’s mission, which became very public, saved lives.  That isn’t counting the many other people who had a colonoscopy and walked away with a clean bill of health. I know for a fact many people who’d been putting off their colonoscopies suddenly scheduled them after learning of his story.
Although Harold passed away on December 11, 2003, I have never forgotten his mission, and I knew once I turned 50 I’d follow his advice and get a colonoscopy.  As I neared 50, and although I knew the importance of screening, with each passing year, then months, I began to dread it more, after all, I’d heard so many horror stories about the day before colon prep, nothing to say about the actual procedure of having your bowels probed in search of cancer, or precancerous polyps.  Some people probably don’t get the procedure because of lack of insurance, but I suspect most people put it off because of the stories, and because the idea of the procedure makes them squeamish.
When I turned 50 almost a year ago, I tried to reason away my own colonoscopy, but Harold’s words kept coming back to me. Besides that, my doctor, Dr. Robert Wood – my medical God, reminded me it was time. Medically I have led a blessed life. I’ve never broken a bone, or had an operation. And I’ve never spent a night in the hospital as a patient.  For that matter, I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to medical procedures. If I’d been born a woman I’d probably never had children to avoid the discomfort of childbirth.  Adding to my worry about the procedure, a couple of years ago my mother died following a rather routine surgery. No matter how routine and minor colonoscopies are, it was still in the back of my mind I’d end up like her.
Before Christmas I met with Dr. Terry Larsen, a surgeon at Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital (NVRH) in St. Johnsbury. A congenial man, he educated me a bit on the procedure, the protocol leading up to it, and what to expect the day of the procedure. A nurse recorded my vital signs and recorded my medical history. The date of my colonoscopy was set for January 8th.
Two days before the colonoscopy, January 6, I was required to change to a soft diet. That was really no big deal. For the most part, I could eat my typical diet with a few exceptions. The next morning, January 7, was liquid diet day – no food at all, just broth, gelatin, popsicles and such.  This was a bit more challenging because, although not a big eater, I do like to graze all day long.  It was also the day for colon cleansing, the day not to venture far away from the bathroom. At noon I had a “lunch” of two Dulcolax laxative tablets, then two hours later, within about an hour, I consumed 64 ounces of lemon Gatorade with a laxative called Miralax dissolved in it.  I’d heard how nasty the colon prep concoction is,  but it was really no big deal (I understand the prep drink has improved dramatically in recent years). Drinking 64 ounces of liquid within an hour was a bit challenging, but far from impossible.  Once consumed, the next few hours of your life will revolve around the bathroom. That was no big deal either. As for “dinner”, that involved two more Dulcolax tablets. Although one can’t eat during the day before the colposcopy, it is important to remain hydrated, so I drank plenty of apple juice and water.
The day of the colonoscopy, my wife, Penny, and I drove to NVRH where I checked in at day surgery. Eventually I was directed to a patient room where I was asked to change into one of those not so modest gowns that opens in back. Settling into my life as a patient, the medical team charged with preparing me for the procedure did a great job.  Their caring and humor put me at ease.
Then it was show time! Dr. Larsen came in, chatted with me a bit, then off I went on a stretcher to a procedure room. That’s where I met the nurses who’d be assisting Dr. Larsen. They were so good at tolerating my offbeat sense of humor. They explained I’d be sedated, but I wouldn’t necessarily be totally out of it as is typically the case with surgeries. I might even be able to watch part of the procedure on a video screen. As we all chatted, whatever was in that IV bag began to run into my veins. I remember one of the nurses asking me if I was tired yet. I said, not a bit.  I’m not sure if she hit me with a hammer, or if at that moment the drugs kicked in, because apparently I was out like a light. When I woke up (they tell me I’d been out for about 15 minutes) I cracked a couple jokes then focused on watching the probe travel through my colon. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to watch, but it was fascinating). I think I dozed back off, but when I came to I remember asking if it was done, and when they answered in the affirmative, I said something like, “that’s it”. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I’d fretted about undergoing the procedure for years. The only downside was that during the journey through my colon Dr. Larsen located and removed one polyp, which are typically not cancerous. A biopsy later confirmed it was noncancerous.
It was then back to my room where I exchanged my gown for my clothes, and reunited with my wife. I felt so good I swear I could have driven myself home, but that is strictly forbidden because of the drugs still in the patient’s system. Once back home, life pretty much began where it left off before I started the colon prep.
If you have been putting off getting a colonoscopy because you are nervous or squeamish of the procedure, call your doctor and schedule one. It is no big deal, and the discomfort you might feel in the process is far more comfortable than finding out later that you have advanced colon cancer, cancer that could have been detected years earlier with a simple colonoscopy.
As for the folks at NVRH, I can’t thank the entire team I dealt with that day enough – from the intake worker who checked me in, to all the medical professionals, including Dr. Larsen – for making my stay far more bearable than I ever thought it could be.

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Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital
PO Box 905 1315 Hospital Drive
St. Johnsbury, Vermont 05819
TTY/TTD, Dial 711
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