Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cafe Colon

While the Doctor’s Lounge here at work has a virtually unending supply of Pepsi products, every now and then I prefer a real honest-to-goodness Coke. Fortunately, the c cafeteria features a genuine Coke machine to satisfy these periodic cravings, and it was pushing midnight when I headed down the terraced steps leading to the vending machines.

Hospital vending machines usually offer more fare than the usual soda, candy, and chips. That’s because health care is twenty-four hour industry, but food services are not. So there are machines that feature more substantive foods such as burgers, sandwiches, and salads. In this particular cafeteria, these kinds of treats are in a machine that has tiers of rotating circular trays. The trays bring the food to the front where they can be pulled out through small plastic windows.

I’m sure that someone checks what’s in the machine and doesn’t leave anything in there for an inordinate amount of time. However, because the food is often under continual lighting in the cafeteria and has been frozen, thawed, and frozen on any number of occasions, the color and consistency is often just not right. Because these morsels are sometimes questionable, the machine is known popularly as The Wheel of Death. And acquisition of a meal from The Wheel has become its own kind of triage tool in the ED. For example, two nights ago I saw a young woman complaining of severe abdominal pain while munching on a vended hamburger of uncertain character. It was a given that if she could stomach that, there could be nothing serious going on.

(As an aside, the ability to eat just about anything in the ED…but especially Fritos, Doritos, french fries, or chicken nuggets…while complaining of nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain will automatically downgrade your ‘emergency” problem to…well, whatever we decide it is. The same goes for your severe level of pain or discomfort if I walk into the room and need to wait five minutes for you to get off the cellphone.)

The walk to the café is actually one of the most pleasant journeys you can take within our institutional walls. The hospital has built an indoor atrium with a rock garden full of real water, plants, and dirt complete with pre-recorded songbirds. The steps that lead form the main floor to the cafeteria descend through this arboretum. It’s a place where I always pause for just a moment to smell the freshness of the greenery within the bosom of antisepsis, or feel the warmth of the sun at the height of the day. It is not the kind of place you expect find a giant stuffed colon. Which is exactly what happened.

It turns out that the display was part of National Colon Health Month. It needs to be noted that I am in favor of treating your colon right. I recognize the need for balanced diets including the liberal intake and fluids, fruit, and fiber. I know that screening for colon cancer, including testing of stools for occult blood and colonoscopy, is one of the most cost-effective tools we have for the successful treatment of bowel cancer. I am also the guy who believes so strongly in colon awareness that at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment employee picnic, I dressed up in a polyp costume. (In retrospect, I may have actually taken the role too far. Convinced that my costume needed a personality, I decided to be an angry polyp and walked among the staff, pointing at plates of burgers and chips and yelling “MORE FIBER!” Yes, there are pictures somewhere. No, you cannot see them.) All this being said, I had never really considered the possibility of what do to when confronted with a giant twelve-foot-long stuffed fabric colon cascading through the atrium suspended from two metal uprights.

So I did the only thing I could. I became inspired by the display, and decided to dedicate my life to being an advocate for colon health. Everywhere I go I’ll carry small cards and a bottle of chemicals to test the stools of random passers-by for blood. I’ll stand on street corners and espouse the cause. I may even take the giant stuffed colon and wrap it around my shoulders to wear as a boa, bringing my message to the swankiest nightspots, or perhaps I’ll use it as a rope to tie myself to the White House gates and demand…well, I’m not sure yet, but it’ll come to me.

The above paragraph is, of course, a lie. The only thing I could really think of to do was get my picture taken with it. And so now in my cellphone there is a picture of me standing under the colon; one where I’m standing on top of the rocks in the atrium with my head seen above the colon, and a third with me pointing at the colon in a most solemn and Galenic manner. Fortunately, one of my nursing colleagues felt the same sense of wonder as I, so I also have a picture of the two of high-fiving under the colon, smiling with thumbs up under the colon, and a high-fashion photo of each of us posing, looking indifferently off into the distance, hands on our hips, our respective profiles set off against a background of fabric-filled ascending bowel.

I can barely wait for Breast Health Month.

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