The Best Time I Watched My Doctor Examine My Stool Sample
You would think four days of lying on the couch, in the same flimsy nightgown, cracker crumbs clinging to your constant film of sweat, moving only to deal with your nearly-continuous flow of diarrhea, would strip all your dignity from you.
But no. It can get worse than that.
I’d been sick since 2 AM Saturday morning — the chosen hour for karma to double down on the “fuck you” that all stomach illnesses already feel like. 2 AM Saturday guarantees you’ll lose not only everything you’ve eaten all week, but your entire, longed-for weekend. It was now Tuesday.
I’d done everything I could: drank all the clear liquids I could force into myself, nibbled on saltines from my prone position on the couch, and taken ibuprofen to bring down the 103.2 fever that mutated the space-time continuum of my apartment on Saturday. I’d rested, and replaced electrolytes, and avoided anything with dairy/caffeine/alcohol/flavor.
Somehow I’d managed not to shit myself, yet.
But I wasn’t getting better. And all the terrifying internet sites were telling me it might be pancreatitis, at least if it wasn’t some sort of obscure organ-cancer — spleen-bladder cancer, or maybe upper appendix tube cancer. Every site agreed: if it hadn’t cleared up in one to three days, something was wrong. Tuesday was day four. I had to take another day off work and go to the doctor.
The nurse on duty returned my call within an hour or so.
“So you say you’ve been having symptoms since Saturday, huh? Oh, you poor thing. What’s been going on?” She sounded genuinely concerned, like the Boston-born, chowdah-accented aunt I didn’t have.
“Umm…mostly diarrhea,” I said. My voice was Victorian-invalid weak and wispy. “And I had a really high fever Saturday.”
“That’s no good. Did you travel outside the country in the last week?”
“What about outside the region?”
“No.” I hadn’t traveled outside the 100 feet between my couch, my bed, and my toilet. Also, what do they have down South that would do this to a New Englander?
“So let me ask you — coz I have to ask — is there any way you could be pregnant?”
“Alright, well you should definitely come in. I have an appointment at 11:45 if that’s alright. And you’re gonna want to bring a stool sample.”
“Just…in a container or something?” I asked.
“Exactly. Or you can do that here, if you think you’ll be able to.”
The only thing I’d eaten in the last 16 hours had been two Gatorades. All my recent stool samples were coming out fruit-punch red…and slightly less frequently.
“But if I have to go between now and then I should…collect it.”
“Oh yes, for sure. Just bring it in with you and the technicians will take it for analyzing.”
That sounded horrible, but I didn’t have a choice. If they needed my poop to cure me, then I needed to poop in a cup and take it along for the ride.
An hour later I felt the all-too-familiar pains all around my gut, like some vile clown was making balloon animals out of my intestines. I ran to the cupboard. An old takeout soup container would be good.
Hovering awkwardly over the toilet, I tried to suction the plastic jar around my ass, hoping to at least not poop directly onto my own hand.
My sample dribbled out. Eager to get out of my own way, I swept my hand forward…through the water of a toilet that for four days had been my personal toxic runoff site.
I reached over to the toilet paper roll — unwinding way too many sheets and pressing my forehead against the roll to get enough tension to be able to rip them off — and created a little nest on the floor.
For my poop soup.
After drying off and finishing up I capped the container, then shuffled over to the cabinet filled with old supermarket bags. Back in the bathroom, I gingerly lowered the container into the first bag, then lowered the first into the second, then washed my hands for a very long time.
I had my sample. Now they had to fix me.
By the time my cab turned on to Mass Ave I was sweating, gripping the car door with one hand, and my bag of poop with the other. It was just another half a mile. They had a bathroom off the lobby.
We pulled up and the cab driver looked at me in the mirror, then frowned. He glanced at the limp canvas tote over my shoulder, empty except for my keys and wallet, and the plastic bags gripped fiercely in my right hand as I thrust some money his way with my left. He frowned harder.
“Thank you,” I said, scooting across the seat as quickly as I could.
Reader, she made it to that toilet.
Still clammy, and still carrying my clearly superfluous “from home” poop, I entered the reception area and checked in. After a few minutes, a nurse came to take me to my exam room.
She took some vitals and strapped me into the monitors. After a few bored questions, she unhooked me and headed out to get the doctor. A few minutes later, someone knocked softly. The doctor pushed into the room, crossing to the chair and flopping down heavily. He was bald, with a slight potbelly and round, wire-framed glasses perched on a lumpy nose. He looked like a slimmed-down, shaven mall Santa, or an insurance-commercial ideal of a grandpa. He was at least 75.
“So what’s going on?” he said, looking at me with a kindly smile.
“Well, I’ve been having diarrhea basically constantly since Saturday. And I had a really high fever. And a lot of stomach cramping.”
“Okay,” he looked down, lips slightly pursed. “How many…movements, would you say are happening daily?” He kept his eyes on his notepad.
“I don’t know, 20? 30?”
“Oh, my,” he said. He still wouldn’t look at me. “Hmmmm.”
The old man doctor was very clearly embarrassed to talk about poop with his young female patient.
He asked me a few more questions — blindly — then turned to the computer screen.
“I’m going to prescribe an antibiotic — for it to last this long, it’s almost certainly bacterial — and an anti-diarrheal medication to…slow things down.”
“Okay. I also have…”
The poop was still sitting in its cup at my feet, tucked inside the two bags, somehow necessary to this whole process. I took a deep breath.
“The nurse told me to bring in a stool sample?”
The doctor jerked his head up at me, bushy eyebrows veeing down.
“You gave that to the nurse on the way in, then?”
“No, I…no one asked for it, and…there wasn’t really a chance.”
“So you have it…”
I nodded towards the bags.
“What is it in?”
He coughed nervously. “Okay. We’ll just…deal with it here, then. I’ll just get the sample container,” he said, looking down and shuffling rapidly towards the door. “It’ll just be a moment.”
The door clicked closed behind him, leaving me alone with my takeout container of shame.
I bent down and untied the handles, pulling the bags open to peer inside.
The container had fallen onto its side at some point between my house and this moment. Half the top was covered in a film of liquid shit. He was going to have to open this somehow, and then he’d be even more disappointed in me than he clearly already was. Maybe if I just eased it open beforehand, it would settle, or I could just, I don’t know, hand him the open container and hide the top, and make it seem normal somehow? I was thinking on about 1000 calories and ten hours of sleep over four days.
Setting the container firmly on the floor, I tucked the bags around the top, trying to ease it open through their filmy sides, starting with the clean half.
I made it about a third of the way around when the smell exploded into the room. Rotten eggs and dead animals and the inside of a human being decaying.
My stomach gurgled ominously. I closed the container.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, this smell had to go away before he came in. Weakly, I waved my arms through the air. They must plan for this somehow — have ventilation systems in place, or air intakes? I couldn’t be the first person to make a doctor’s exam room smell like the reasons you come to the doctor, could I? I waved harder.
It had either started to dissipate slightly or I’d started to become accustomed to the stench when the door eased open.
“You can just pass the…container to me,” he said, turning towards the counter next to the sink and cracking open the pill-tube sized bottle he was carrying. “We just need a very small amount to test.”
I handed it over. Oh god, this wasn’t really going to happen, was it? I KNEW what was coming. Exactly what was coming. But I wasn’t prepared for the massive, stabbing pain to my gut that came as soon as he took it.
“Oh my, this is very…liquid,” he said, turning his back on me as quickly as possible. “Hmm.” He pulled on his latex gloves.
I could feel the rolling, bubbling, septic wave sweeping over my guts.
“Like I said, I haven’t eaten anything in almost a day. I haven’t really eaten since Friday.”
It was like time was moving in slow motion. A white hand reaching to the plastic lid, pressing around the edges, pulling up the near corner…
Immediately the entire room reeked of shit. I’m not sure if you’ve paid much attention lately, but your shit smells EVEN WORSE when you’re ill. It’s some sort of evolutionary defense system hardwired in over generations, with the express intent of making moments like this, when your doctor decides to deal with your shit with you in the room, as horrible as possible.
The stabbing in my stomach intensified, multiplying and dispersing into every available curve and twist of my boiling bowels.
He started scooping tiny, pill-bottle-top spoonfuls into the bottle.
“Oh, there’s something…I don’t know what that chunk is,” he said under his breath.
Think of hoses coiled neatly — no kinks! No knots! No spurting, uncontrollable holes! Meditate your intestines into submission. What’s that book? The Secret? Just imagine your intestines being normal intestines for the next 10 minutes and the laws of positive self-actualization attainment-mantras will…
Stab. Stab-stab-stab. Pressured stab.
Hold. Your butt. Closed. That was the new mantra. Just hold it closed.
“There’s a lot of mucus.”
Fuck The Secret. That book is a fucking lie. Fuck everything about that stupid fucking book.
“The whole thing is mucus, really.”
“That also points to bacteria as the cause, of course.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“It means your intestines are working extra hard to push out whatever’s inside.”
“I’m so, so sorry.”
Finally, he screwed the little top back into the bottle and rapidly closed the lid on the rest of the source material.
“Do you mind if I…just…dispose of the rest of this?”
“No, of course not. I don’t need a souvenir.” I giggled weakly.
Crickets from the doctor.
Too soon, Jilly. Too soon.
He tossed the container of shit into the biohazard bin — I was officially a biohazard now — and pulled an antiseptic wipe from the feed by the sink, wiping the entire counter furiously.
Then he repeated it with another.
Then again with another.
Out, damn shit.
In, damn shit.
Finally, he pulled off his right glove and opened the door.
“I’ll just take this to the lab. You’re free to go.”
“Do you have any…recommendations?”
And he swept out of the room, tiny, testable amounts of my shit in his still-gloved hand.
Jilly Gagnon’s work has appeared in Newsweek, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Toast, Vanity Fair online, and The Huffington Post, among others. She’s currently working on both a humor book and a young adult novel. At any given moment, she’s probably talking to her cats.