by Lauren Taiclet
I know it’s my name on the appointment list, but I’m not sure I’m really needed here. I know I’m in this pain clinic for reduction of my chronic headaches. It will be my body on the procedure table. Even so, it’s the doctors’ minds at work now. They recommended the occipital nerve blocks; they wanted to inject something at the base of my head in order to reduce inflammation. They are the ones bustling around the clinic, preparing the metal tray of vials and needles. This is their space, marked by their enormous group photo looking down on me as I walk to the examination room. I am here for their mastery, so can I just leave my mind in the waiting room?
I ask because living in an aching brain is exhausting. A bad headache is not just a number on the illusory pain scale. It closes in my world. It restricts my plans for the day to the safety of my dark bedroom. It confines my future. Even on good days, my mind is constantly conducting the attentive calculations of managing a sick body. The simple tasks of waking up, eating, hydrating, or working all require a newfound amount of planning and experimenting to prevent the defeat of unexpected symptoms. This kind of care is a job in and of itself.
As I lie down on the procedure table, I wonder, could my mind just take a quick break while I’m here? I would be just over there if the doctors had any questions. Instead, I take a deep breath and bury my face into the thin, crinkly paper on the table. My neck twitches every few seconds in search of a comfortable position, and my nose squishes awkwardly into the flat plane of the table. With my mouth mostly obscured, I struggle to breath and can only mumble my readiness to begin. It feels as though the long needles I had seen on my way in could be inserted at any moment, so I hold as still as possible.
The head doctor starts to explain his actions, and I wait to hear him guide me through the process. Then I realize it is not for my benefit. Rather, I am serving as an academic exercise for the younger physicians in the room. As an aspiring doctor myself, I want to be interested in the science and the procedure of how injecting a chemical into my head might allow me to walk through the world without fear of pain.
But they have a disconnect I cannot reach. They are able to chat with me in the examination room before the visit and then flip a switch as I lie face down. In that moment, they can treat me as only a physical object in need of medical expertise. I have no such ability. I cannot drop off my body and pick it up later. As much as I wish I could, I cannot leave my mind idly in the waiting room with a magazine. Whether they acknowledge it or not, I’m still in there. I am trapped not only in my dysfunctional body but also under their needles about to pin me towards the table.
To distract myself, I tune into each sensation. The coolness of the ultrasound gel seeps into the base of my hair. The stab of one needle for anesthetic makes way for a larger needle with steroids and more numbing medication. I hear the doctors express doubt about their needle placement. They say my hair is blocking the ultrasound guidance. I expect a razor to come out, to feel my hair shaved away. Instead, the head physician says he will find something close enough. My confidence wavers as they dig around inside my head, and I feel each movement of the needle. My hands clutch the front of the table, and a doctor sinks his elbow into my shoulder to steady his field.
Ultimately satisfied with their work, they instruct me to stay lying down for a few minutes to avoid any bad reactions. A bad reaction is not my concern. The whole experience was bad, if they care to ask about that. I live close to the pain clinic and am intent on simply getting home. When the physicians reenter the room, I reluctantly sit up to their questions of pain relief and lightheadedness. I give whatever answers seem to secure my release.
Back in the refuge of my couch at home, I let my mind rest in the familiarity of my favorite television show. My hands keep returning to my head, which is indeed numb. However, it is a heavy and pressured numbness, a distinct and loud announcement of pain relief. There is no freedom back to normality. I am still exhausted, not from pain, but now from treatment.
Lauren Taiclet is completing an MS in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. She became interested in illness narratives through her personal health experiences and her work as a cancer clinical research coordinator. As she starts medical school this fall, she plans to continue pursuing medical humanities, including writing, philosophy, and comparative literature.