22nd May 2017
Today is the day of the TEP scan as the French call it, PET scan to you and me. What? Oh, okay. It stands for Positron Emission Tomography. My appointment is in the main hospital in Vannes, the Bretagne-Atlantique, for 0845. Up at 0730 for a wash and brush up, nothing to eat as I need to be empty. I have starved myself since midnight. I say ‘starved’ but can you really starve yourself if you’re asleep?
The drive down is under a sky of flat cloud, cumulostratus. The traffic is light and the radio a light background noise. The first distraction is the hot air balloon over the plain leading down to Vannes. I spot its blue/blackness as I come over the ridge, sitting over a field to the right of the road. I suppose one could see the dark coloured bag of gas as some kind of omen, some harbinger of doom perhaps, or as a more vague premonition of something, who knows? I certainly didn’t. The first thing I thought of was the photo you are made to look at through some ophthalmic machine at Eyes R Us. You know the one, the multicoloured balloon hovering over some desert road. The next couple of kilometres of the drive are spent trying to remember if that’s the one that puffs air in your eye. Sadly I could not recall, though I think it was a picture that went through some autofocusing process when you looked into it. The second distraction is the result of inattention. A day before the drive I was trying to think of when I had last been to the B-A in Vannes and which roundabout it was I would turn left at. For some reason I had convinced myself it was the one after the roundabout which had the Clinique l’Oceane on it. You may have gathered by now that despite there being some four types of computer in the house, all connected to the internet, not including mobile phones, I was too stupid (or lazy) to check. Even if I had not checked, what on earth is there to stop me from glancing at the road signs indicating locations. I already knew that both the clinic and the hospital were all signposted, I had made excellent use of them the first few times I’d driven this route. But no, I sailed on, convinced of the route in my head, happy in that slightly euphoric way that seems to come over me prior to a procedure. I know it is nerves, a certain tension within that I attempt to cover with a laissez faire attitude. Mentally I am a bit like the swan gliding across the lake, an icon of serenity, whilst the webbed feet are paddling like crazy underneath. Anyway I strayed too far and had to turn around and comes back. Turns out from the signposts (Huh. Who knew?) that the turning for the hospital is on the roundabout before the clinic. Just to be particularly boring, though it took me a little out of my way, there was no real extra traffic and I did not lose much time. Of course if I wanted to be really boring I could go through naming each and every A and B road number but that would mean googling it and I’m obviously not one for that.
As I travel on toward the hospital i pass by the train station, a low lying atrium of steel and glass fronts the original 19th century building to my left. To the right are a series of bus stops serving the city and surrounding towns. The flat open layout, bookended by a pair of roundabouts, pleases me. There is some magical arrangement of the ordinary that satisfies me, that jibes with me, that warms me. I never fail to feel slightly buoyed driving down this brief road. It may have something to do with the activity there. The 300-400 metre stretch always has people on it, some hurrying for a train, running with their bags or wheeled cases, or sometimes not running at all but doing that hoppy, skippy fast walk that folks do to retain a sense of normality but still get somewhere quickly. Others are the complete opposite, coming out of the station, at the end point of their journey, home at last perhaps, or visiting, looking around for a friendly face, a smile of greeting, a hug. Across the road there are people waiting for buses, some of course are surrounded by their piles of luggage, on the last leg of their holiday return, tired but (hopefully) satisfied with their time away, perhaps on the coast or in the great Midi. Some are doing nothing much at all, glancing at a watch, checking the schedule board again, chatting with mates or, as happened today, a boy standing on the edge of the road whilst his girlfriend posed for a photo. Actually, despite all these things going on I still think it is some effect of the space as defined by the station, the atrium, the road and the stops. The space is calm and open, it speaks of travel but gives no impression of hurriedness.
A short further stretch of road and I am at the hospital. I turn right immediately and drive round to the back of the grounds where I know the NUCLEAR CLINIQUE is. There’s no doubt it deserves to be written in capitals, after all I am about to be irradiated. Just to be clear the radioactive liquid acts as a tracer so the scanner can see me clearly. I still hold out hopes that I may come out with super powers. Of course, knowing me that could only mean the ability to recognise grammar errors before they occur or that power to explain the infield fly rule without a diagram. I hand my carte vitale at reception and it is swiped as per usual and as per usual fails the first time. The magnetic strip may have problems or perhaps the coppery exposed metal section on the front. It’s always a slight worry as the government issued health card, which identifies you as in the system is, I’ve heard, particularly difficult to replace. The receptionist breathes on her thumb, rubs the golden metal and tries again. Success! There is a small charge, a few euros, something separate from the insurance I have, so I write a cheque. This may be something I can claim back later. It seems when you get nuked, everyone pays.
The waiting room in main reception is pleasantly light and airy and is filled with the usual crop of oldies, red faced farmers in their eighties and blue rinsed old dears in too tight sandals and beige or grey pant suits. Beige, grey or blue are popular colours with old women. With the men it is pretty much always blue, mostly the tough cotton of their overalls and three pockets farmers jackets, or denim, good old durable denim. It also seems to be a law in France you wear brown shoes or boots with your blue cotton. I smile at this thought until, with a small shock, I realise I too am wearing denim jeans and brown boots. I take comfort in the superior style of my boots but I am still a little shaken. A male nurse arrives and I am called. Or, at least I think I am called. I raise my hand, he smiles and I follow him through the automatic doors. He asks me, in English, to follow him down the corridor. Ushering me into his room he begins the prep for a piquer, in other words put a line in my arm for the radioactive stuff. Piquer is the French for sting and it will but only briefly. He puts the strap around my arm and tightens it and unwraps the needle. At this point a nurse comes in to say I am the wrong patient, I am the other Anglais. I immediately pipe up with an apology, without even knowing for sure it’s my fault I’m sat here instead of some other unfortunate, or maybe I was apologising for being British? That’s not always uncommon over here. They exchange some rapid French and he returns to me. Fully expecting to be ejected I rise to go only to be waved to sit back down. He tells me it is his fault for not checking and he smiles ruefully. With the needle in my arm I am escorted to a second waiting room, smaller and windowless with about 10 seats and five people inside. I sit and get engrossed in a magazine on this year’s Cannes film festival. After a few minutes a nurse sporting what the French consider stylish eyewear comes in and asks for M. Morris. Hesitantly I raise my hand, I’ve been burned by being too eager once already and I don’t want another black mark and find the scanner has been turned up to dark toast. A man in the corner jumps up and goes to her. Just as she is to lead him away, she’s asks, “quel est votre prenom?” What’s your first name? He says something that begins with a J and that is clearly the wrong answer. She disappears and I exchange significant looks and raised eyebrows with the farmer across from me. The exchange, all in glances and Roger Moore eyebrow work goes like this:
Farmer (with a raised eyebrow): I think it might be you she wants, you did raise your hand after all
Me (with a small smile of hope): I think you’re right, did you see how confused she looked when he gave his prenom?
Farmer (with a sly nod): Just wait, she’ll be back and she’ll pick you, mark my winks
Me (with a self deprecating grin): I hope so, I’ve buggered up answering my name once already, I don’t want a bad rep.
She returns with the English speaking male nurse, who ignores the other M. Morris and asks me my first name. I tell him, “mon prenom Donald” and he nods and indicates I’m the one to the woman. Smiles all round, except for the first M. Morris who looks cheated.
I recognise the little room from the last time I was here for the same scan. This is where I will get the radioactive tracer introduced so I will glow appropriately when scanned. She sits me down and offers me a blanket, I refuse. As the process for the product involves a wait for it to get around the body there is a bit of a wait and I suppose some of the crumblies don’t deal with this frankly cool room too well.
Segue: I just realised I mentioned this woman having ’stylish’ glasses but did not describe them. They are round glasses in thick black plastic but with a red bar across the top. Basically she looks like Arthur Askey in drag.
Whether the male nurse who put my line in was distracted by the names mix up or just a bit slapdash I don’t know, but Arthurette is having trouble getting a blob of blood from the needle for what I think is probably a blood sugar test with her hand held machine. She wiggles the needle in my arm, presses down on the point of entry and then revolves the needle but no joy. While I wonder whether the needle is not even sitting in the vein at all and I’m going to get stabbed again, she grabs a syringe, fills it with saline and attaches it to the needle’s opening. She draws back on the plunger and a shooting cloud of red fills the syringe. A firm pump in and the saline is injected. She smiles broadly and tips the machine’s paper tip to the opening and it sucks up a drop of blood. A click and a beep and she’s happy. I mentally apologise to the male for distrusting him and miss the jokes she makes about my thick, quick setting blood. It was something involving the word ‘bricolage’ so it may have been about her DIY actions to get things flowing. That or she thinks my blood would make a good glue. After hooking me up to the saline drip, she returns with the robot machine that injects the radioactive tracer. It’s called the Posijet and is a big round cornered box on wheels, it’s sits, whirring ominously in the doorway. Imagine if a rebel alliance committee had made R2D2. Somewhere inside is the NUCLEAR STUFF. She hooks a line to me from the machine, steps behind it and presses a button. The whirring noise increases in volume and I watch clear liquid head from my body down the plastic tubing. Arthurette stays the ‘safe’ side of the machine, checking the display before leaving. The product usually takes about two minutes to go in, twenty minutes to go round the body. Every so often she returns to look at the display.
Once I am suitably irradiated Arthurette takes me to the tiny vestibule to the scanner room, little more than a small space with a door in and a door out and a chair inbetween. Before we go in she shows me the toilet next door and tells me I must pee. As the PET scan will take about thirty minutes they want scanees to go before to avoid embarrassing accidents. I go to the toilet. It is in here that the signs saying you must sit to pee are plastered on all the walls and the back of the loo. The last thing any cleaner wants is to be wiping up radioactive wee.
I sit. I wee.
I am ushered into the vestibule and told to remove my shoes and my jeans. Arthurette also points at the chair and tells me to sit. I do not. She looks most disappointed I have not followed her instructions. She closes the door. After a couple of minutes the scanner attendant opens the door and invites me in. I lie down and she tells me how long it will take, how I am to be relaxed and keep still, breathe normally. I nod and she leaves. The scanner makes some adjustments, rolls back and forth, the ring begins its spin. Just like the last time I had this type of scan I doze off within the space of, well I don’t know actually but I’m guessing it wasn’t long. This is not uncommon as they have an alarm to wake you when they are done. It’s a gentle peal of electronic bells. I get up and the attendant smiles and offers me a small packet of all butter biscuits. Standing in a room with a scanner and accepting biscuits in your underpants is a slightly surreal experience. Back to the vestibule and I enrobe. Arthurette opens up, takes me to yet another small waiting room, this time with a small table laden with magazines and two large bottles of water and more small packets of biscuits. The radioactive tracer for the scan detects a form of glucose in the body and as cancer cells use it at a faster rate than normal cells, cancers can be accurately spotted. Whether there is destruction of glucose and a need for returning it to the body via biccies, I don’t know. Either way, they keep you in the waiting room for around fifteen minutes with instructions to eat and drink. Following the army rule, “eat when you can, you never know when you will again” I scoff the biscuits I’ve been given, washing them down with the water then start on the packets on the table. At one point I am interrupted in mid scoff, mouth full and crumbs around my lips, by a hospital visitor who is wheeled in by his ambulance man. As that’s something that comes with the insurance you have there is a large network of private ambulances and taxis to serve the local hospitals.
After a suitable time Arthurette returns to usher me out. Off I go.