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The gland that time forgot

by shandypockets 

Posted: 26 July 2005
Word Count: 3617
Summary: Brings a lump to your throat
Related Works: Lap(p) of the God(forbid)s • Never Mind the Quantocks • 

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Content Warning
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

I’ve never been what you’d call a huge fan of actively confronting my own fragile mortality. I tend to put going through a slow horrible death in the same category as driving speedboats or dancing unselfconsciously – something certain other people seem perfectly at home with but just not for me.

This entails a healthy regime of denial, of course, but on a day to day basis, it doesn’t really cause too many problems.

You can imagine my concern, then, when the lump I’d sensed in my throat over a period of a year or so, finally became too painful to ignore. It had been going so well for me, following the standard issue genetically coded Male Procedure of Addressing Medical Complaints, and I had been coasting along with the ignoring, secretly worrying about and then blowing out of all proportion stages. These elements had been relatively straightforward, and, as for any twinge-experiencing man, nothing new to me.

The suspicion was such, though, that I warily embarked on uncharted territory and I decided that a visit to my doctor was probably in order.

I’d visited my doctor on several previous occasions, mostly for a routine renewal of my asthma inhaler. I find mild asthma to be a reassuring condition – handy to draw on in cases where you might have to help out with anything demanding physical strength but not likely to render you helpless if you have to escape a violent mob at any point.

The usual pattern was for the doctor to ask me how my breathing had been for the last few months, whilst I detailed the occasional times I’d needed my inhaler and sat back as she filled in the repeat prescription, happy in the knowledge that I was providing her with a civilised break from the malingerers in the waiting room, some of whom required complications such as interpreters and actual examination. I could tell from her lack of conversation and heavy sighing that she was happy just to soak in the few tranquil moments that we shared every few months or so.

This was a different scenario, though, and the initial consultation took on a more serious air. It involved a fair amount of probing questions, the kind of which I’m never happy telling the truth about to the medically qualified. I figured that doctors automatically double or treble the amount you tell them that you drink, smoke or inject Amazonian toad venom into your eyeballs, so I seasonally adjusted the figures to escape any moralising lectures.

Even though I’d been practising the kind of pained expressions that would surely secure me the best free medical healthcare that the absence of money could buy, my doctor didn’t seem unduly concerned, perhaps lulled into complacency by the apparently monastic lifestyle I may inadvertently have implied that I lived.

Nevertheless, she referred me to a specialist in matters of the throat. And so it was, a few weeks later, that I approached the hospital to see what the fickle finger of fate would find as it made its way down my oesophagus.

As I wandered gingerly towards the foreboding building, I thought about popping into the unwelcomingly-named “Hospital Tavern” – the name of the pub handily located straight opposite the outpatients department - for a brace of stiffening ales, but entry looked tricky given that two people on crutches were trying to knock seven bells out of each other in the doorway. It was kind of like jousting but without the horses or fair maiden with a big lacy conical hat dropping her hankie. I decided against it, and besides, I wanted to give my blood tests at least a fighting chance of dipping below twenty percent proof.

I had to sit in the waiting room for around 90 minutes, which wasn’t so bad in itself as I had a book and my fear of an early grave to occupy me. Sat next to me, though, was some ex-military type trying to fob his dubious war stories onto the only person who would listen, an octogenarian man in a wheelchair and pyjamas the other side of him who I had to assume was just unable to leave under his own steam.

His opening conversational gambit was that he’d “killed four people in Vietnam”, though it wasn’t made clear as to whether this had been in any kind of war or not.

“Where were you stationed?” chirped up the paraplegic old boy.

“In the…er…jungle,” bluffed Rambo, who was probably unused to being pushed for actual details of his fictitious military engagements.

Undeterred by the lack of any grounding in what most people would recognise as reality, he moved onto tales of brutal training ground violence and how he “once broke a man’s jaw in four places”. I imagined it was from repeatedly dropping to the ground after being told unbelievable bullshit war stories, but this impressed the pensioner no end, and inspired him to start on some convoluted battle story of his own, involving rucksacks, misunderstood orders and a trench, a gripping tale that was sadly cut short as he was trundled away to fulfil his urine test commitments.

The man then started to look around as people quickly hid behind their newspapers lest he made eye contact with them. In the absence of an audience, he began pontificating to no-one in particular: “God help us if there’s a war now. Young people today are more bothered about the colour of their mobile phones.” I was going to say “Than what? Indiscriminate killing as part of imperialist war strategies?” but I figured that might not butter any parsnips with his type. Instead I just pocketed my cream coloured Nokia and tried to look mean.

Eventually I was called in. The examination itself was fairly uneventful. A bit of prodding. A bit of poking. A bit of me trying to answer detailed medical questions with the doctor’s arm down my alimentary canal up to his elbow. He concluded that there was “definitely something in there” but there was “no telling what”, hardly the most reassuring appraisal. He told me that I had to return for scans, and that I was free to go, though not before being subjected to some surprise blood tests. I couldn’t help but notice that there was no mention of any controlled medication, which was disappointing to say the least.

The results of the blood tests proved inconclusive, and some weeks later I was beckoned to a different part of the hospital to be scanned, much like a bag of ready-washed salad through an electronic point of sale. My friend Lara came along to hold my metaphorical and, at some points, actual hand. I was called through and I lay out as the doctor hooked up the ultrasound and applied the special conductive jelly to my neck, much as they do to pregnant women’s stomachs when they produce those pictures where if you’re really good at lying you get to say “Awwwww, I can see the baby’s tiny hands!”.

The doctor had a lengthy footle around with her probe whilst I said things like “It’s actually a bit lower down”, to which she replied “I know”. Under her breath she probably added “how to do my job, you ignorant cretin”. After that I mostly stared at the ceiling and concentrated on not speaking.

After a while, I peeked across to see her scowling at the screen. I thought, either they’re showing reruns of straight to video Jennifer Lopez films on there, or there’s bad news on the way. I craned my neck a bit further to try and get a glimpse of what was going on. At first I was just glad she hadn’t come across a set of four month old triplets (“Aww, I can see their tiny hands…”) but what I could see was lots of black shadows. Scowling and black shadows.

I lay back and thought “I’m finished”.

Oops. Had I just said that out loud?

“I said I’m finished.” I realised it was actually the doctor, who had obviously seen enough. She was looking decidedly nervous and I thought perhaps she missed the class at medical school where they do the bit about breaking bad news in a professional manner.

“The ultrasound is showing up something and it’s confirmed my suspicions…” she said as I focussed mainly on not being able to breath. “There’s something obstructing one of your saliva glands that needs further investigation and the operation will be performed by a big purple dragon who lives on magic mountain and his best friend is Maurice the talking cat who drinks blue milk from the invisible space cows…” At least, that’s what she could have said for all I knew because after the word ‘glands’ all I could hear was an angelic cacophony singing a joyous chorus of IT’S NOT CANCER!!!

The relief washed over me, tempered only by the fact that we were now dealing with something quite mundane and therefore worthy of much less pity form all my friends. When all’s said and done, though, a blocked saliva gland was still going to be no laughing matter. It was bound to affect my spitting, for starters.

But at least I was safe. All I had to worry about again was random acts of violence, brain tumours and chronic heart failure due to lack of a proper diet. I walked back to my flat – the sun was shining that bit brighter, the traffic fumes were that bit more noxious, and all was well with the world.

Round three of me versus my throatal nubbin took place a couple of months later. It required inspection by yet another consultant. This time it was back to the good old days - rubber gloves that tasted of enema half way down your gullet, as opposed to the scary hi-tech of the scanning ward, the wretched lump having stepped down from cancerweight division to defend its benign-paingiving title.

As usual, across from the main entrance, the infirm-welcoming hostelry The Hospital Arms was overflowing with people in various states of alcoholic relief, though they could just as easily have been drowning their sorrows. There was a touching line up of walking frames parked outside the main bar – kind of like Lourdes with a two drink minimum.

Inside the hospital, there were only several hundred vocally restless people in front of me, and of them, I’d say no more than twenty percent were violently psychotic, baying at invisible demons or barking like bronchitic coyote, so it was relatively civilised. I even thought about dropping in for a quick drink at the always-popular food and beverage outlet Café Royale, which served eight different types of coffee to people in dressing gowns. There looked to be some commotion, though, as someone obviously there for a routine exorcism was arguing about their skinny mochachino, so I passed.

I was ushered in after only twenty minutes wait, only to be told that the results of the ultrasound I had some months ago were still in transit. I lost interest in the lengthy explanation, although I the messenger had to navigate uncharted waters with the file betwixt his teeth, stopping off only at some unspoilt exotic island to learn the ways of the natives before continuing on his delivery. Well, that or their fax was broken. Either way, my consultant, the Throat Whisperer was unhappy, complaining that there was “going to be a major mistake one of these days”.

The pleasantries out of the way, it was straight in for the manual recap. That familiar taste of rubber – it was like a party on my tongue, and everyone was invited! I thought about asking him if he’d wear the ribbed ones to enhance my pleasure but felt it was too soon into our burgeoning relationship. He seemed satisfied that I wasn’t about to cough up a tumour, and sat back to consider our options, which seem to be disappointingly singular in their nature – I had to have the saliva gland out.

He said he’d run some tests, presumably just to make sure we’re not embarking on that “major mistake”, and then it would be under the knife. Before I could ask any more, he was straight in with his “only minor risk of complete lower-facial paralysis”, sneaking it in as an afterthought just as I’m about to innocently ask if I need to pack my own jim-jams.

Apparently, there was a tweak of a chance that the surgeon might disturb a nerve that’s the width of a human hair (“So thicker than YOURS,” he added, somewhat sarcastically I felt, as he eyed up my balding pate). If it snapped, well, I could say goodbye to that career in modelling or being understood in shops, that was for damn sure as hiccups.

I asked him what the risk of this actually was. He said he’d done “loads”, a term that later transpired to mean ‘fifteen’, and that he “hadn’t KNOWINGLY paralysed anyone YET”. I silently wondered if he’d paralysed all fifteen and they were just keeping it from him to spare his feelings. Or even worse, unable to even convey their distress to anyone, perhaps confined to their beds now, only able to relay their wishes through delicate control of their nasal mucus.

A couple of weeks later we decided to make the arrangements for the operation as soon as possible. My consultant was perceptibly hot for this procedure, describing it variously as “lovely” because “you (by which I sincerely hoped he meant ‘he’) can see all the nerves and muscles”. He also described as “wonderfully anatomical”, though I assumed most operations on humans were, unless you were in having your aura removed.

Once again, we went through the risks, and he cited Geoff Boycott, an old ex-cricketer turned TV personality who was the shining model of the worst case scenario and whose speech patterns only slightly resembled those of John Merrick with a Yorkshire accent. The estimated size of the residual scar had grown slightly, as had the outside chance of lower facial paralysis, from “almost never” to “maybe one in forty” but other than that, we were good to go, and I would get to spend four days on a hospital ward doing, well, whatever it is you did on hospital wards.

On receipt the news, my mother, the nurse, was a veritable tidal wave of concern, though most her immediate worries seemed to be directed at whether I was in possession of a presentable washbag or not. I assured her I was, but she seemed insistent on buying me a spare set of pyjamas “in case I vomited everywhere”. My mother is notorious in her irrational lack of faith in my being able to control any of my bodily excreta, and this is just a logical extension of her constant donations to me of non-prescription diarrhoea medication, which she pushes like an insistent, bowel-conscious ghetto crack dealer.

Anyway, far was it from me to be responsible for sullying the family name by looking shabby in pre-op. Obviously, for generations we’d been people who had the appropriate attire when checking in for a stint on the ward – nighties, moccasin slippers, spare sets of non-vomit drenched pyjamas, you name it, and as my personal hospital visit stylist, my mother was already on the case.

I’d been a bit apprehensive about my stay, thinking a lot about the horror stories in the newspapers of people being left to die in freezing cold hospital corridors. The coal face of healthcare actually wasn’t that bad, though.

I’d snagged a bed by the window, which was making my cohabitees on the ward, none of them under 70, seethe with envy. At least, that's what I was taking the irregularity of their noisy breathing to mean. I'm not one to boast, but the views of the hospital service entrance were breathaking.

It was the perfect atmosphere for repose. I was disturbed every 45 seconds or so by a syringe-wielding orderly to give blood, or to urinate into a plastic jug, or sweat pure bone marrow into a barely-sterile sponge, but these were vital procedures, and I relaxed into my role seemlessly.

As inhabitants of the ward, we were tagged with wristbands of different colours, my basic white only seemed to get me access to the 'patients only' bathroom, whilst the others were probably a bit more "all areas," though since this probably just meant somewhere with cell-bothering levels of radiation or the catheter-fitting emporia, I didn’t feel too excluded. I was being taken down to the operating theatre first thing the next day.

I was woken at 6:30 am after a refreshing night's sleep of around 90 seconds, punctuated by only the odd half hour of continuous satanic whooping. Still, it was a gentle easing into the day, waking to find an electronic thermometer being rammed into my ear.

“Wake up! Time to be put to sleep!”

Stripped of my brand new pyjamas, which my mum would be proud to find I hadn't vomited all over, I was dolled up in one of those gowns that shows off your arse to all and sundry and an undeniably fruity paper hat. A whistling porter wheeled me down to theatre, and, more importantly, the drugs. James Spader was evidently moonlighting as an anaesthesiologist and we chatted for a while as if this was a perfectly normal social situation. I told him I dabbled in travel writing and he suggested, as he inserted the drip into the back of my hand, that I wrote about this place because the painkiller he's about to administer would send me “on the best fucking trip I’d have all year.” Suddenly I was being dosed up by William Burroughs. True to his word, some seconds later I had an uncontrollable urge to listen to melodic house music.

My prankster of a surgeon came in to mark me up and, much to his own personal amusement, wrote "Cut Here" in big letters on my neck. The stream of jokes seemingly endless, I heard him quip, "Time for my pre-surgery shot of whiskey!" as he left to scrub up.

Then came the knock-out juice. The last words I heard were "put yourself in a nice place," and thankfully, not "So what are we doing again exactly?" and 3.7 seconds later, I was out.

I woke up in the recovery room with an immediate sense of disappointment that the pre-med had worn off and being barked at to “breath deeply”, which seemed like a lot of unnecessary effort, so I drifted back to sleep. Apparently I had a relatively animated discussion with the porter who wheeled me back to the ward, along the lines of me shouting out “How big is the scar?” and him being reticent to tell me and getting tired of my repeated pleading, though since it was swathed in about 40 square metres of gauze dressing, and he had no way of seeing it, you could understand his eventual testiness.

I spent the afternoon nonchalantly slipping in and out of consciousness, only being woken at one point by my jester surgeon asking me to blow him a kiss. I thought perhaps I was delirious, but it was his way of checking that he, and more importantly I, had avoided the whole lower facial paralysis scenario. I did have that post-dental feeling in my lower lip, though, where it feels like a small and unmanoeuvrable dinghy that made even drinking tea a more dribbly exercise than it usually is. Cursory damage assessment revealed a lower jaw that felt like it had had a picture hook drilled into it and a tube coming out of my neck whose sole purpose was to slowly vacuum out any spare blood, along with anything else that felt like being sucked out of my insides, into a jar, which I had to carry around with me for two days. Not the most dignified of activities.

The next two days were spent in stasis, my only distraction apart from the people who visited me being the ongoing flatulence of my co-patients, rampant throughout the day as they jostled to have the most disgusting medical procedures performed on them (“I’ll see your bedside bowel movement and raise you a catheter replacement!”). At night, the noises would be emitted over the ether like the last gassy emission of a slowly-petrifying mollusc welling up over several decades through a stinking prehistoric tar pit. The man next to me would swear himself to sleep.

Weirdly, all the doctors appeared to be blonde thirty year old females, and so morning rounds were like a medically-themed covershoot for Cosmopolitan or something. I was never paid much attention. All I had to do was lie there and knock back my decidedly substandard painkillers, becoming more and more convinced that once you’ve had morphine derivatives, you can never truly go back.

The rest of my stay was, in any case, uneventful, apart from the extraction of my blood-letting fashion accessory, which felt like they were slowly unwinding the arteries around my throat and left a slightly larger than pinhole gap in my neck.

Before I knew it I was stuck at home with unsightly stitches and nothing to do. I felt worn out considering I’d just laid on my back for three days. But with time to reflect, I began to miss a part of me. I missed my gland. I kept having thoughts that maybe we should try again. I could change. We could both change.

But deep down, I knew it was just too late.

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Comments by other Members

Dreamer at 23:32 on 26 July 2005  Report this post
Nice writing Paul! Welcome to the group.

I like your sense of humour, particularly stuff like this, ‘a gripping tale that was sadly cut short as he was trundled away to fulfil his urine test commitments’. (fulfill has two ‘l’s)
Loved this too, ‘I figured that might not butter any parsnips with his type. Instead I just pocketed my cream coloured Nokia and tried to look mean.’

The part about the ultrasound findings was great. As I said, great sense of humour!
With this, ‘rubber gloves that tasted of enema’ I sort of wondered how you knew what an enema tasted like… but then I’m not English… :)

‘examination’ I think should be plural.

I’m not sure this works so well, ‘wandered gingerly’.

Overall I really enjoyed this and hope to read more. May you have many more adventures in the hospital! Just kidding. Actually take it from me, it is much better to be on the other end of the knife!


Richard Brown at 09:45 on 27 July 2005  Report this post
Being in a bit of a rush to clear things up before going on holiday I have to confess to some dismay when I saw the length of this piece but then I started reading, and smiling, then laughing and an anticipated chore became a great pleasure. It would have been so easy to drop into cliche but you avoid this consistently, always finding an amusing turn of phrase. Very enjoyable.

There are one or two minor typos (I noticed a 'form' for a 'from' and a couple of other spell-check deceivers) but these in no way detracted from the reading pleasure. As Brian says; more please!


Elbowsnitch at 10:46 on 27 July 2005  Report this post
This is hilarious. I started crying with laughter half-way through the ultrasound scan. More, please!


shandypockets at 15:33 on 29 July 2005  Report this post
Thank you Brian, Richard and Frances, for your kind words. I enjoyed writing it, and I will upload more very soon. I guess a bit of editing is in order first, though. Thanks again,


lieslj at 06:08 on 04 August 2005  Report this post
Hey, Paul, this is definitely a bloke's tale. Lots of testosterone, lot's of machismo.

I'm sure there is a publication that would snap it up, but probably not one I'd read or buy! I'd be interested to know what your ambition for the series is.

Good luck editing and placing it nevertheless.


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