If you would have told me that, at 36 years old, I would drink a few cups of red stuff that promised to be radioactive and then get nine tattoos, I would have been surprised. That seems like something that should have happened in college, when I regularly consumed drinks with names like Windex, the Bettie Page and Mind Eraser. I was 20 when I got my first — and only, until yesterday — tattoo, a small Libra sign on my shoulder.
The whole experience of my PET/CT scan and radiation prep was a little like being in my early 20s. At one point, people drew on me with markers, like I was the first guy to pass out at the party. I also spent some time lying in a bag full of chemicals with a piece of masking tape holding my chin up, as if I were some sort of performance artist. (This also seems like something I could have done for an artist friend — I can see someone asking me to lay in a bag of chemicals to make a mold and agreeing.)
What’s even more surprising is that I had forgotten a lot of this was supposed to happen yesterday. It was all explained to me a few weeks ago, and then I promptly forgot about the tattooing and molding part of my radiation oncology appointment.
When I arrived, I changed into a navy hospital robe, which I later discovered was the less chic of the two versions available. While others seemed to have sleeker gowns with white piping, mine was a plainer, droopier version. I’d noticed the other robe in the pile in the dressing room, but had thought it wouldn’t make much difference. Perhaps I am placing too much blame on my robe. I’m not very good at tying the back, and I have a knack for looking slightly disheveled, even when I’m wearing clothes with buttons and zippers.
Sitting around in robes with a bunch of other people with shaved heads and cropped hair makes me feel as if I’m a monk. Or maybe in a cult. Wait in these outfits we’ve provided so we can make a mold of your upper body, then we’ll give you a red drink and tattoo a symmetric pattern on your body.
The initial explanation of the mold sounded like I was going to be vacuum-sealed, but I laid on top of a bag of warm chemicals for about 15 minutes until it hardened to make a mold for future radiology appointments. They put a piece of masking tape across my chin and attached either side to my arms, which were above my head. All those savasanas at the end of Bikram yoga class came in handy as I had to lie still.
My veins remain tiny and uncooperative, but the nurses found one for the IV. Then it was finally time to drink the red fluid. “Raspberry,” the nurse noted. Again, I asked if there were other flavors, but no, that’s it. After not eating for more than six hours, I find myself looking forward to my raspberry radioactive beverage.
Then it was time for the CT and PET scans. Since the contrast injection sometimes burns, they slowed it down a bit for me. (Last time, it caught me off guard when it hurt.) They checked on my comfort, but since my chin was again taped and strapped up, I could mostly just grunt that I was OK. The worst part of the scan, for me, isn’t even staying still for so long; but it’s hard not to fall asleep. When I do start to nod off, my arms move then I wake up, alarmed. So I’m usually left a little drowsy.
I was nervous about the tattoos. I should mention that I passed out when I got my first tattoo, the little Libra symbol. The tattoo artist had told me to let him know if I felt nauseated or light-headed. “I feel funny,” I announced, and then the next thing I saw was the bottom of a bucket, which my head was in. I emerged from the bucket to see the friend who had accompanied me, red-faced and laughing with unbridled mirth. The tattoo guy said that people pass out from an adrenaline rush and he’s had 300-pound linebackers pass out on him. It’s possible that he was lying to make me feel better, but he didn’t seem like the type.
Still, I hadn’t had the desire to get more tattoos. I just couldn’t think of anything else to get, or where to get it. Even when I dressed at my most outrageous, there’s a sense of conservatism that pervades my wardrobe. Ever the goodie-goodie, even when I’m trying to be cool. So when it came time to get a tattoo, I wanted something that could easily be hidden. I was mindful that I’d need to get a job someday. Now, of course, tattoos are more acceptable, but even then, I wanted to be rebellious in the most cautious way possible.
“How many?” I asked yesterday, as they took measurements and drew on me with markers.
“Nine,” was the reply. Nine?
“Is this going to hurt very much?” I asked. It was the same question I posed years earlier to the man wearing a leather vest with sleeves of tattoos (before I passed out). That guy had assured me that if it hurt too much, people wouldn’t go back for more tattoos.
I was assured it would hurt less than the tattoo I got 16 years ago and even less than a finger stick. I expected some sort of fancy tattoo gun, but it looked more like an ink pen. “Like a prison tattoo?” my boyfriend asked later.
I guess. I’ve never been to prison. I imagine this was much more sanitary. But it didn’t hurt much, to my relief. I got three down the middle of my body, two on each side and two on my legs. They explained that they don’t want to make them too big, as they’re permanent, but they also have to be able see them during your radiology appointments. They’re small dots, like the one Tom Hanks got in an episode of Bosom Buddies to impress Sonny when he got drunk with Amy. (Perhaps my fear of tattoo pain stems from watching this episode that apparently left quite an impression on me as a child.)
The next step is to wait for the doctor to call with the results. I have a confession: I can view the results now online, but I’m going to wait for the doctor to call. I may have 10 tattoos, but I’m not tough enough to read the lab results on my own.