I hesitated at the entrance to the health centre. I didn’t want to walk through the echoes of visits past.
This was the same surgery I went to as a little girl with my mum. When they called our name mum would hurriedly grab my hand, flying me across the room towards the office. If a coat dropped, a bag got caught on a chair or anything delayed us by even one second it felt like the end of the world. This was a place of injections, seething with germs and, for mum, a race. It was all about getting, as quickly as possible, back to the sanctuary of outside world.
It was the same waiting room Mum sat holding my sister in her arms watching other children doing wobbly toddler walks. She stared at the same desk and filing cabinets as she came back visit after visit. Again and again she heard a doctor sigh and patronizingly explain “All children develop at different rates, your daughter is fine”, then give a look as as if she was the one with the problem. They were wrong. My sister had severe special needs and mild cerebral palsy.
This was the same place mum came to several times for help with her persistent stomach pain. Again the doctors didn’t listen to her even though she was a 59 year old woman with a strong family history of breast and ovarian cancer with text book symptoms. Months went by until mum was too sick to work, the doctor did a little back-tap and declared her lungs were fine. Three days later mum was in hospital. Her lungs were almost full with liquid.
It was on these chairs that I nervously waited holding mum’s handbag, coat and gloves. They weighed almost as much as she did. She was dressed immaculately, wearing one of her beautiful dusky pink headscarves and long white cardigans while we waited for a nurse to change her dressings. I tried to touch all the doors for her because with her low blood counts catching even a small infection could kill her.
It’s here that I stood in line shaking and crying uncontrollably, fearing I was having a complete nervous breakdown. I’d had a complex relationship with my mum, where for most of my life she completely loved me, 80 percent. The other 20 percent of her despised me. As she was getting closer to dying the ratio flipped the other way. My heart and my nerves broke because, despite trying everything I could, I was losing her before I lost her.
It was down these corridors I walked heavily and painfully towards the grief councilors office. I was trying to figure out how to get through the devastating loss of my mum while having a severe reaction to bone drugs making it hard to move and sometimes impossible to walk. My own cancer drugs made me suicidal so I had to stop taking them. To up the fear ante I lived for 3 months with a scan saying an enlarged node was “suspicious for metastatic disease”. I had lost my country, my home, my doctors, my support and was more alone than I had even been. I didn’t have the option of not being alright. I was here for my sister, I couldn’t be sick or incapacitated.
The wind whipped around me as I stood watching the doors of the surgery slide open. On this occasion I wasn’t there to report new painful side effects or to get results from a scary scan. I was just there for a routine common garden variety pap smear. I took a step while reminding myself to chill out.
I didn’t know that English pap smears were so different from the ones I got in America. Firstly it was done by a nurse who I thought was taking a medical notes but half way through I noticed she wasn’t writing down the answers to the questions she was asking. I got the feeling she was just interested. She declared she didn’t think lesbians needed a pap smear, I let her know politely that wasn’t true, inside I was screaming ‘you should know this’. I took a quick look at the paper, it was just a bare bones of a form. I was used to a pap smear as part of what we used to call a girlie exam, when a doctor also does a breast check, asks about sexual health and tells you random things like your uterus is tilted etc. In the UK a nurse just does one thing, a swab.
I was up on the table, naked from the waist down, legs wide when the nurse mused aloud,
“I wonder if the stress of your cancer caused your mother’s”.
I couldn’t take in the enormity of what she had just said because a second later the speculum went in and I experienced one of the top five worst pains of my life. Which after multiple surgeries and cancer treatment I feel is a pretty high bar. Then the pain came again until I screamed, “Stop”.
She couldn’t find my now post-menopausal cervix. She had to get another nurse. They didn’t seem like nurses they seemed like older lady volunteers, who received a 15 minute training. They had another go at which point I was shaking and starting to cry saying “this isn’t important we can just stop”.
I was so grateful to be off the table, I reacted like someone with Stockholm syndrome, thanking my captors for releasing me, so much so, that I told them how nice they were before running out of the building.
The rain whipped my face as I hurried down the familiar cold grey streets. The physical pain of the exam started to ease but the pain of the blame was just beginning.