Monday, August 23, 2010

August 23, 2010 – What the Biograph Knows

Last Tuesday, I went for a PET/CT scan. This is perfectly routine: I get scans at intervals, alternating between the PET/CT and a regular CT scan with contrast. It’s how Dr. Lerner and I figure out if we’re still watching and waiting, or if it’s time to take a more proactive stance.

A year or so ago, the testing interval was every 3 months. Now, the doctor has spread the schedule out to every 6 months. That’s because my lymphoma has been so lackadaisical of late – a good sign.

The scanner lives on the back of a tractor-trailer truck pulled up to a loading dock at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. It’s there a couple days a week. What hospitals it visits the other days of the week, I’m not sure.

Here’s what I recall of the experience...

I’ve been through this enough times to know exactly what to expect. Pin-prick on the finger-tip, for the instant blood test to make sure I’m not diabetic. IV needle inserted in the crook of the arm, into which the technician injects a hypodermic-full of liquid out of a thick, cylindrical, silvery-metal case (that’s lead casing, to protect the technician from the radioactive glucose solution I get to have coursing through my bloodstream for the next several hours – lucky me). The IV needle comes out right after that, then it’s 45 minutes’ R&R in a comfy lounge chair. During that time I’m instructed to sit quietly, even nap if I want. Only then am I ready for the scan.

That entails lying flat on my back, perfectly motionless, for 30-45 minutes, arms extended straight back over my head. I know from experience how the muscle-pain that develops in my arms, after 20 minutes or so of this unnatural posture, is the worst part.

Just before climbing onto the narrow table that will slide me through the machine’s donut-hole, I notice an inscription on the device: “SIEMENS Biograph 6.”

The manufacturer, of course, is Siemens, the medical-equipment giant. Biograph 6 is evidently the model name and number.

Ya gotta think of something while you’re lying on your back, trying to keep from counting the minutes, so I start musing on that word, “Biograph.” Obviously, it’s a trade name dreamed up by the Siemens marketing people. “Bio” means life, and “graph” means writing. Put the two together and the name suggests a chartful of medical data – which is, essentially, what this high-tech test produces. Makes good marketing sense.

It also calls to mind, of course, the word “biography.” Coincidentally, during the 45-minute rest period before my scan, I started reading a biography: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate. Her book’s a fine example of the genre: a collection of facts about the famous preacher’s life, but also so much more than mere facts. The facts are presented so as to conjure up the real person, as though he could step right off the page.

That’s what a good biography does. Yet, I wonder as I lie there: What is it that a good Biograph does?

I suppose the thing that’s most important to the medical community is the way its visioning software slices and dices my body into thousands of paper-thin segments, which it then analyzes, looking for the rapidly-metabolizing tissue indicating a possible malignancy. (I don’t feel a thing while all this high-tech butchery is going on, by the way. Except for the pain from my hyper-extended upper arms, I could probably fall asleep there inside the donut-hole.)

Likewise, a biographer like Debby Applegate gathers and arranges a whole lot of facts about her subject’s life – scanning it, as it were – before sitting down at her word processor. Once she starts to write, though, her goal is not to simply pour out the unedited facts, performing the historical equivalent of a data-dump. No, the biographer’s aiming to put Henry Ward Beecher back together again, so he arises in the reader’s mind as a 3-dimensional personality.

I heard Debby give a talk about her book at the Presbyterian Historical Society Luncheon at our denomination’s General Assembly last month. She spoke of Beecher in a way that intimated he’d become very real to her. I recall her making an offhand remark about how she’d been “living with” Beecher for quite a number of years, as she researched and wrote the book.

The similarity of names makes an unlikely association in my mind to the Marx Brothers’ film, Go West, in which Chico and Harpo are walking up and down a railroad platform as Chico repeatedly calls out, “Mr. Beecher, we’re here to meet you!”

“Are you looking for John Beecher?” asks a serious-looking businessman in a suit. “I’m John Beecher.”

Chico’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “We don’t recognize you, do we, Rusty?” (Rusty is played by Harpo, who emphatically shakes his head “No.”)

“Naturally you don’t recognize me,” sniffs Beecher, officiously. “We’ve never met.”

“Then how do I know it’s you?”

Typical Marx Brothers lunacy.

Does the Siemens Biograph know it’s me? Having sliced me up into a thousand pieces (or, more precisely, into millions of little ones and zeroes), how will it put me back together again?

The technicians running the scanner couldn’t be more cordial or professional, but even so, the whole process is designed to produce a numerical output that falls far short of describing who I really am.

Following protocol, the technician checked my hospital bracelet as I came in. It was his way of answering Chico’s question from the movie: “Then how do I know it’s you?”

Yet, he doesn’t really know me. Nor will the radiologist who reads the results and reports them back to Dr. Lerner. To the inquisitive electronic eye of the Biograph, I’m just a biological system, nothing more.

There’s a famous scene in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, in which Shylock muses on the alienation he feels as a Jew, living in a Christian country:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
[The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1]

One of the things we cancer patients appreciate the most is when someone treats us as a real person, not a mere medical case. I’ve been fortunate to get that sort of response from Dr. Lerner and from most of the people who’ve cared for me, over the past five years or so of tests and treatments.

We’d be foolish to expect that sort of thing from the Biograph – although, as we look to our fellow human beings who wear the lab coats and the nurses’ uniforms, is it out of line for us to hope for a little personal interest in our biography?


LeighSW said...

I am once again impressed and overwhelmed by your writing. What a great comparison and contrast. Well done!

Carl said...

Thanks so much, Leigh.