Tuesday, June 30, 2009

PET sounds

My instructions last Thursday were to report to Kaiser Permanente's West Los Angeles Medical Center for my very first PET scan.

The goal of a PET scan is to detect metabolic activity caused by cancer cells, and I was pretty jittery about the procedure. After two months of radiation and chemotherapy and three months of recovery, I really don't want to hear that rogue cancer cells are still lurking in my body, and I wasn't wild about having a radioactive tracer shot into my veins so any cancer cells could be smoked out.

But there was only one way to find out if I still had cancer in me, and that was to show up on time and get the PET scan over with.

My appointment was at 4:30 in Kaiser's Nuclear Medicine Department in the West L.A. facility, which I had never visited before. According to the orders I received in the mail, the Nuclear Medicine Department was located on the first floor. That sounded simple enough to find – but nobody warned me that Kaiser's West Los Angeles Medical Center was the size of a small New England state.

I wasted precious minutes trying to find the entrance to the facility, and more time was lost as I navigated the multiple parking structures. By the time I parked my car and found the entrance to the hospital, it looked like I probably would be arriving late.

If I had a voice, I would have approached someone wearing a Kaiser badge and asked to be directed to the Nuclear Medicine Department, probably tripping over the word "nuclear," like Sarah Palin always does.

Instead, all I had to do to get directions to where I needed to be was walk up to the information desk, hold up my appointment reminder and point to words "Nuclear Medicine, Room 105."

As it turned out, Kaiser's Nuclear Medicine Department was just a holding tank for patients getting PET scans. After I checked in and completed a few forms, a short, stocky fellow entered the waiting area and announced that he would be leading me and another patient, a smartly dressed elderly woman with silver hair, to our PET exam.

We took a winding path through the hospital's corridors and outdoors before finally arriving at a bungalow in Kaiser's parking lot.

Kaiser's West Los Angeles Medical Center is located on a street called Cadillac Avenue, but this bungalow seemed to belong on Pinto Place or Chevy Vega Drive. To get inside the bungalow, we had to step on a platform and be raised to the entrance, where we were greeted an older man with a white jacket and a pony tail who vaguely resembled George Carlin.

The old lady was directed to one end of the bungalow and I was led to the other, where Dr. Carlin invited me to sit in a leathery recliner.

"How tall are you, Mr. Serchia?" he asked.

I held up five fingers, and then nine.

"Five-nine," Dr. Carlin said, writing in my chart. "Now, how much do you weigh?"

This was like playing charades, I thought. I held up one finger, then four, then I made a zero with my forefinger and thumb.

"One-forty?" he asked. I nodded.

Then Dr. Carlin gave me an overview of what the procedure would be like, explaining that the goal of the PET scan was to detect the "bad cells" in my body. He directed me to roll up my right sleeve and make a fist so he could insert a needle and inject the radioactive tracer in my veins.

I clenched my eyes tight while he rubbed my skin with alcohol and tapped my arm. I've been getting jabbed with needles on a regular basis for almost 20 years but I've never gotten used to it. It always feels like I'm being stuck for the very first time and I always think that I'm going to cry, but never do.

Except this time, I did. Just as the needle pricked my skin and slid into my vein, the whispering strains of Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life" began to play on the radio.

Dr. Carlin saw the moisture around my eyes and asked if everything was all right. I picked up a pen with my free hand and wrote in the margins of a newspaper: "This song always gets me weepy."

Because my writing hand wasn't available to me, I wrote with my left hand and my handwriting looked like Farsi. But Dr. Carlin figured out what I was trying to say.

The PET scan was a breeze. It was similar to other imaging studies except that it didn't make a deafening racket like an MRI and instead of having only my head and neck scanned, my whole body was inserted into the tight chamber.

About an hour later, the PET scan was over, and I was free to leave. Now, I'm waiting for a call from my doctor so I can hear the results.

I hope any lingering cancer cells don't take me for a wuss because I cry when I hear Michael Jackson songs on the radio. My message to them is: Beat it. Just beat it.

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