I'm writing this with a big bandage on the back of my neck. This is because I just had a large cyst removed. I tell ya, nothing says "YOU ARE OLD NOW" like non-emergency medical attention. Apparently my body felt the need to underline my turning thirty last May with some old person's ailment. While I slept, it spun the wheel of "physical malfunction" and came up with "unsightly bump". Frankly, I'm just pleased the wheel didn't land anywhere near "anal seepage".
To be honest, I don't actually feel old because of this. I'm laid-back enough that I won't feel old until I hit, say, fifty, and then I'll wig out bigtime, buy a hot new car, and have naked women painted on it. But I'm okay with thirty. Anyways, the cyst had been growing there, quietly brooding on the back of my neck for some years now. I had it when I went in for a medical check in, oh, nineteen ninety-six or so. But since moving to DC it kicked into high gear. Lying in the medical plate after the operation (1), it alone was about half the size of my thumb. Yeah, a big marble like thing under the skin, bulging out the back of my neck.
Sure, the doc told me to get it out before it got infected, but I had to have the thing removed because it was really hurting my self-image. I mean, for years I'm young and strong, and suddenly I have this "Uncle Fester"-like protruberance on the back of my neck. For one thing, everyone secretly mocks and/or pities people with deformities - I'm sorry, you do too, I know it - and now I was the weirdo with the unsightly pustule! Nooooo! Not meee! It can't happen to me! And the other big thing about it was that it was on the back of my neck. So I couldn't tell just how unsightly it was, and my subconscious just knew that everyone was staring at me when my back was turned. Staring, and snickering. Staring, snickering, and calling friends to tell them about it, friends who would come from several states away (admittedly, states out here are very small) to stare at it.
So you can see it was bothering me. Anyways, I just got married, the health insurance has kicked in, so I went to a surgeon and had it removed. (Cost so far: $50 for initial consultation and $250 for the surgery. That's the total the surgeon has charged, not the amount I pay. And I have to get the stitches out next week. Frankly, it wasn't as much as I had feared.) The evil little lump was what's called a subaceous cyst, caused by a sweat gland failing to de-activate properly. So, rather than just sealing up and going away, which sweat glands do pretty regularly, it sealed up but kept producing the waxy stuff it uses to lubricate itself. Thus, my skin was unbroken, but under it a little pouch was inflating with wax-like goop. Not an uncommon malady, I am assured.
Being clever, I brought the most recent issue of The Economist to read in the waiting room. And, this being a doctor's office, I used it. The article I got through was about medicine in developing countries, in particular Tanzania. Good article. It starts off with a little story hook, about how a woman brings in her baby to the clinic, and it starts having convulsions. Well, the clinic knows that this is due to malaria, and wants to give the child an injection. But the mother knows that convulsions are a sign of evil spirits, and that poking the child with a needle will create a hole through which the spirits can escape to bother other people. So she takes the child and leaves, intending to use the traditional remedy for evil spirits, which is to put the child in an enclosed space and burn elephant dung until it loses consciousness.
Fortunately, the aid workers ran after her and convinced her to bring the child back; they gave it a Valium suppository, the convulsions stopped, and then they gave it quinine to combat the malaria. No needle holes, malaria treated. Happy-ish ending.
Now, here's the thing. I'm in the clinic, shirt off, and the doctor is taking a prod at the lump on my neck. "It's gotten larger [since I examined you four weeks ago]," he correctly observes, "does it hurt any?"
It doesn't hurt, per se, but for the last two days it has been bothering me. Before that, I couldn't feel it, but now it causes my neck to ache if I stretch or turn it too far. So the answer should be "yes". But I know that, if I say yes, he won't just cut it out - he'll want to drain it or something and the whole saga will drag out for months. I want it out now! So I start to say "no".
At which point I flash on the Tanzanian woman and her baby. Here I had been chuckling to myself about how silly she and her "evil spirits" were - and I was about to do the EXACT SAME THING. If my doctor was going to change the procedure because of changed circumstances, it was because he knew better than I.
So instead I say "Yes, it's been bothering me for a few days". To make a long story short, sure enough, he says it's probably infected, and he can't excise it if it's infected. It'll have to be drained, and in six weeks he can check to see if it's no longer infected, and remove it. However, when he cuts it open and removes the stuff inside, it turns out that it isn't infected, so he goes ahead and removes the whole thing! Yay!
It was interesting to have that sudden realization that the woman in Tanzania wasn't being silly, or ignorant. She knew that there were evil spirits, and that convulsions were a good indicator of them, and that poking a child with a needle could let them out into the world. She was making her own decision based on her own knowledge. Just like I had been about to. I can't say it put me in my place, but it certainly made me just a bit more sympathetic towards an unnamed Tanzanian woman.
- Sun Ra
(1) DANGER: YUCKY STUFF AHEAD! The cyst was gross. I had been hoping he'd pull it out in one piece, so it would be a little stretched-out sac, probably with little veins on the surface and severed little tendons where it had been attached. But he cut it open first, and pulled out a nugget of what looked almost precisely like chicken fat - the grainy kind, not the smooth stuff - about the size of a largish marble. Then, finding that it was not infected, he removed the now somewhat deflated cyst, which also turned out to look a lot like chicken parts. It was kind of beige, and looked a lot like chicken gristle. Guess I'm white meat. Had some of those severed itty bitty beige tubes, and frankly I don't even want to know what they were attached to. And lots of little gristly bits. Anyways, I'm glad the fucker's gone, and am trying to believe very, very hard that now my neck is smooth and seamless under there, just corded muscle under an even layer of fat under smooth skin (with one little scar). No icky gristly bits at all...
Columns by Sun Ra