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What It’s Really Like to Have a Bone Marrow Biopsy

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Ben White

At 7:30 am today, I popped 2 Vicodin and 2 Valium in the backseat of my parents’ car. That would be very strange…if I weren’t about to have a bone marrow biopsy. Four days ago, I found out I have cancer. Lymphoma, to be exact. I’m 24…what the fuck?

I sit in the backseat of the car as my dad drives us to the doctor’s office, staring out the window. I notice each person we pull up next to at every stoplight. I wonder what they’re driving to do…were they going to work? An important meeting? Breakfast? A bone marrow biopsy?

After being called out of the waiting room and into the smaller, somewhat less comforting room, both my nurse and doctor are stunned when I tell them I’ve accidentally taken two of each of the pills when I was only supposed to have taken one, and am not sedated in the slightest…so they give me a shot of Demerol. I asked if they could just put me to sleep for the procedure, but my doctor explained some annoying medical reason why they can’t during a bone marrow biopsy.

I sit upright on the table, my feet banging into the bottom of it every second or two, as I cannot stop moving…and I silently wonder if the “valium” was actually “cocaine.” They wait a bit.

Cut to fifteen minutes later, and still nothing. I don’t know what’s wrong with me; I must be some sort of animal. My doctor tells the nurse to give me another shot of Demerol. This seems like a lot.

They turn out the lights in the little room and I lie back on the bed and breathe deeply to try to calm myself, which just makes me feel like I have to pee. They eventually give me a high dosage of Ativan. We wait 10 more minutes.

My doctor finally comes in, and I’m still not sedated…at all. He looks at me like I am some sort of medical mystery and then simply says, “Well, I don’t think there’s much else we can do. I’m going to give you a local anesthetic, but it will only help so much once we get in there…”

He trails off so as not to frighten me, but it’s too late. Once we get in there. Inside my bone. He gives me a shot in my back for the pain (the pain after the needle goes through my skin but before the needle actually enters my bone) and I grab my ipod. I had a playlist labeled, “bone marrow biopsy”.

“Can my mom come in the room with me?” I ask him.

“I’m sorry I wish I could let her come in but we’ve…had bad experiences with that in the past.”

Great. This sounds promising.

“What kind of bad experiences?” I ask him, my eyes narrowing.

“Well…” he hesitates. This man rarely ever hesitates. But he’s hesitating.

“We’ve had family members pass out from watching the procedure.”

Okay, if I was terrified before, I’m actually shitting my pants now. And I’m alone in this creepy room with all sorts of tools with disturbing labels like “Bone marrow tray”. I don’t even want to look over in that direction, but my curiosity gets the best of me and I glance at the tray. I see a needle that looks to be about the size of something needed to sedate a rhino and something that looks like an oversized screw.

Oh my god.

I feel like I’m in one of those awful horror movies where the girl knows she’s about to be tortured by all these horrible devices but is completely helpless to stop it. I have no choice; I’m in this now, and I feel like my heart and my stomach are going to fall out of my butt.

“Okay,” my doctor says, “let’s get started. Lay on your side facing the wall. Be as still as possible.”

Before I know what’s happening, I’m in it…and I feel nothing. I can hear sounds, which freak me out, but I don’t actually feel anything. All I can hear are the metal-on-metal clanking sounds, and the noise of him twisting, cranking and drilling a tool into my back. The feeling of nothing slowly gives way to a feeling of weight on my back. Then suddenly, a ton of weight, like an elephant is taking a nap on my back…and the pressure becomes more intense until I feel like my whole back is going to explode. That’s when I notice the vague sensation of a warm liquid dripping down my back.

It’s blood. I’m in a position where I can’t see it…but I know what it is. What else could it be, as he continues drilling through my skin and bone? I can feel the fluid slowly crawling down my lower back, which kind of itches me, and onto the hospital paper.

I’m not really in pain until suddenly it smashes into me and my whole body jolts– every muscle responding to the excruciation simultaneously. Like a pinched nerve; like when you go to the dentist and they hit that part of your tooth, that ultra-sensitive part, and you immediately squirm? It feels like that but times about a billion. I let out a yelp and kick my legs involuntarily. Annie, the nurse, runs over and grabs my legs, holding me down.

“Where did you go to college?”

“What?” I scream.

“Just answer me, where did you go to college, honey?”

“University…of Colorado…Boulder,” I say each word between cringes of pain. Hot tears spill down my cheeks.

“What did you major in?”

“What?” I ask her, “seriously?” She has to be kidding me right now.

“Yes, just answer me, sweetie, concentrate on my questions. What did you major in?”

“English,” I answer quickly and then I cry out again. “I can’t take this anymore oh my god, how much longer?”

“About two more minutes” my doctor replies.

Oh my god, two more minutes of this? It might as well be a fucking week, I think before he utters his most horrifying words yet, “…on this side.”
“WHAT?” I scream, “What do you mean on this side?” I’m bawling.

“For you, I have to do two. It’ll only be ten more minutes for the other one. You can do this, Laura.”

All I could do was let the pain wash over me and simply be in this awful moment. I breathe in as much air as I can through my nose before letting it go as loudly as possible through my mouth. There’s nothing else I can do. I can’t move, can’t run, can’t escape. So, I allow myself to be trapped on this table, and there’s a moment of relief between when he finishes the first side and begins drilling my second hip bone.

I stay in the fetal position and listen to my music, eyes closed. Annie continues asking me questions when I scream and kick out as he begins to drill into the other side of my back, but I turn my music up so loud that I can’t hear her.

And I also can’t hear myself screaming.

I can feel my throat going hoarse, but at least I don’t have to hear it. I hear Stevie Nicks.

I can see my doctor out of the corner of my eye, using all his muscle and might to drill this…massive, thick needle into my back. His brow is furrowed and his eyes are squinting with concentration, sweat glistening on his forehead, his weight shifting violently every three seconds. It made me realize the reality of what was actually happening, that this man was literally putting all his weight into drilling right into my body. Just seeing him putting that much effort into it was horrifying. I am very aware of the traumatic nature of this; that this is a moment I will never forget and will most likely haunt the dark corners of my mind for the rest of my life.

When it’s finally over, and it feels like two hours, not twenty minutes, I look down at the pillow I’d brought with me from home, and it is soaking wet with mascara stains all over. Don’t ask me why I wore mascara to a bone marrow biopsy because I honestly have no idea.

The nurse quickly removes the white paper that covers the bed, which is now bright red with my blood. They strap a huge bandage on my back and tell me I can lie down to put some pressure on the wound, and they’d bring my parents into see me.

After resting for a few hours, my mom drives me back to the hospital where I am having my first PET/CT scan, to determine what stage my cancer is. As I sit in the tiny tube, I am a complete blank. I don’t have any real thoughts left to think, except for the places your brain goes when you aren’t really aware that you’re thinking.

I think about the noises the machine is making. I think about how cold it has become in the room and give myself an internal lecture that I should have accepted the blanket I was offered, and as it got colder, why the fuck didn’t you just take that fucking blanket?! I think about the technician running my scan, Gus, and his daughter that he was telling me about. I wonder if they’re close. I wondered if he’s ever had cancer. I wondered if she has. I wonder what I’ll eat for dinner. TC mark

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