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Saturday, June 14, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Swallowing hook, line and endoscope


I am not squeamish by nature.

"Oh, yes you are," says my wife.

Nonsense. I can put up with yucky and uncomfortable moments as well as the next person.

"As long as," my wife continues, "by 'the next person' you mean a screaming 3-year-old."

Such defining insights aside, I have recently encountered a situation that has served to test the mettle of my manhood.

"I want you," said my doctor at my annual checkup, "to swallow a camera."

I eyed him. The image of trying to force down a Minolta -- even a pocket model -- was too much. So I ventured a basic question.

"Are you nuts?"

He chuckled through his teeth.

"I refer to what we Japanese call an 'i kamera,' or stomach camera. In other words, an endoscope."

Oh. "I didn't know an endoscope went down your mouth. I always thought it -- you know -- went up your . . . end."

"What happens," he explained, clicking his teeth, "is that we first numb your mouth with a syringe and then feed down a length of cable with a tiny camera attached to the tip. This we poke all around your belly until we've seen every inch of your insides, then we yank the thing out."

Oh. I chuckled back at him -- "Ha ha" -- and then asked, "So . . . how's it feel to be nuts?"

"Believe me," he said, "it's the only way."

"The only way for what?"

To know the truth, he told me, and then rambled on to explain that the earlier barium exam -- the taste of which was still haunting my every meal -- had shown up clear, undeniable . . . "wrinkles."

"Wrinkles?" At first I felt no concern, as I am quite used to such decorations on my face. But in my stomach? I made the mistake of asking what it meant.

And heard the doctor recite a list of rare medical terms that all sounded like doomed characters in a Greek tragedy.

I gulped. Then the man turned even grimmer. His teeth meshed and he whispered, "Or . . . it could be . . ." He paused and leaned closer.

"Y-yes?"

"It could be . . ." He hissed through his teeth. "Gas."

"Gas?"

"Yes. Do you ever suffer from gas?"

Not really. The ones who suffer are those around me. Yet, somehow I found my last handful of pride.

"Gas? Me? Never!"

"Then I can only recommend the endoscope."

I hemmed. I hawed. I asked to see his diploma.

"There is no need to worry! Why, we Japanese even invented the endoscope!"

"So? You also invented hara-kiri and the 300-hour workweek."

"Do you need some time to think?"

I nodded and asked for 40 years. Yet he gave me but 10 days.

Out of the hospital, I began to solicit opinions on this most Japanese of procedures.

The endoscope was indeed invented by camera bugs at the University of Tokyo who liked to snap closeups of their favorite ulcers. In the half century since, the process has become accepted around the globe, but for various reasons -- easy accessibility, the national fear of stomach cancer and perhaps rabid group-culture masochism -- nowhere has that embrace been so intense as in Japan.

Japanese, particularly those of middle age or over, all seem to love the endoscope.

"Not me," came the opinion of the first person I asked, my wife. "I know when I'm sick and I know when I'm not. And I say forcing a cable down your throat will do you much more harm than a few wrinkles."

"I disagree," countered a Japanese friend. "My wife and I eagerly swallow the endoscope every year. Sometimes even twice a year."

They are a close couple for whom now I had fresh awareness. I began to picture her with a whip and him roped to a bed.

"Nothing," he went on, "can match the joy of knowing you are healthy."

"Oh yeah?" added another friend, this one a New Yorker. "I know a joy that can match. When they remove the damn cable!"

"It was," he continued, "the most unnerving moment of my life. Of course, my head was mostly numb, so I didn't feel much."

He glanced at me then, as if I might relate automatically.

"Yet to hold that device in my mouth, even for such a brief time, was excruciating."

"With the worst thing being that, just out of my eyesight, the technician and his assistant were making loud comments on what I assumed they were viewing on the monitor."

"Remarks like: 'Wow. Ever seen a set like these? Incredible size. Just stunning.' "

"Gosh!" I grabbed my stomach. "What'd they see?"

"Nothing. . . . They were peeping at a foldout."

But his jokes stopped there. "Once was more than enough. No more endoscopes for me."

My last came advice from another doctor: "The bottom line is that endoscopes save lives. However, 'wrinkles' do not sound very threatening. Yet, can you live with not knowing? Can you take that chance?"

A fitting comment, as to me the "Big C" typically stands for "Clint Eastwood." As in, "Do you feel lucky, punk?"

For 10 days I chewed my nails over a range of nightmare scenarios, from cancer to ready-to-hatch aliens -- itty-bitty wrinkled ones. Then came Decision Day.

"So, Mr. Squeamish," said my wife, "what will you do?"

I sat remarkably calm. "Well, it's simply a question of what I can and cannot stand."

"And at present I don't know if I can stand an endoscope. Meanwhile," I concluded, "I can always stand a little gas."

A conclusion to which she did not immediately respond.

She couldn't, you see. She was holding her breath.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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