It was Suma’s first time. She left her handbag with Rishi and gave him a long sad look before she entered the heavy door behind the nurse who opened the door for her. She knew the instant she turned, Rishi would have got back to his phone. It was not the time to think of Rishi’s phone addiction. She had to focus. She entered the hallway behind the door which had opened and closed with people walking in and out over the last twenty minutes while waiting for her turn. The nurse led her into a hallway flanked by changing rooms on either side. On one side of the wall was a locker-type cupboard. The nurse entered one of the changing rooms and instructed Suma to take off her clothes and jewelry and wear the gown with the opening in the front. ‘Undergarments also?’, asked Suma in a voice filled with doubt, shyness and fear. ‘Take your bra off and leave your panties on’, said the nurse matter-of-factly. Suma was shocked to hear the openness in the nurse’s tone. In America, all this is not taboo, if it was India, these words would have been uttered in hushed tones and whispers, she thought. Back in India, Ramu’s clinic around the corner of her street had all the medicines her family ever needed. Dr. Ramu knew everything about every part of the human body and could cure anything. This was her first time at a hospital, that too in Houston. She was there with her husband of six months. Suma had never travelled beyond her small town in Kerala. Taking a big airplane and moving to America had been a herculean task for small-town girl, Suma.
‘Once you are done, use any of the lockers outside to keep your valuables and walk down the hallway to the waiting area. A nurse should be with you shortly’, said the nurse and left the changing room. Suma closed the door and locked it. These doors didn’t have latches like in India, turning that small hinge on the handle did the job. She tried opening it after turning the small hinge, to make sure that she had locked the door. She set out to accomplish the task handed down to her by the nurse. When she got her bra off, she looked at her image in the mirror, at the sore nipple on her left breast that had turned red. It hurt to touch it. Wrestling through the night with Rishi’s maneuvers had become a painful ordeal, night after night, until she could bear it no more.
She tied the strings of the gown on her right side securely and double knotted it, just in case it came off as she walked into the hallway. She looked at herself in the mirror to make sure that everything was covered, she turned left and turned right, looked at herself up and down. She didn’t like the way her nipples showed through the gown. She folded her hands across her chest in an attempt to hide it. After wrestling through this for a few minutes, she gave up and got to the next task of putting away her jewelry in her purse, folding the clothes and put her shoes back on. She folded her bra and hid it between her jeans. That was not an object for public attention, so she was taught by her mother. She looked around to make sure that she had not left anything behind and opened the door. She walked towards the lockers and found one at the bottom with a key. It had a wrist coil roped in with the ring. She opened the locker, placed her stuff in there and locked it as instructed by the nurse. Suma wore the wrist coil around her wrist and walked down towards the end of the hallway. As she got to the end, she turned left and found a waiting area with a TV, chairs and magazines. There were three other women in similar white gowns with tiny prints sitting there flipping a magazine. Seeing them there Suma felt she was not alone in this. There were others. Her shyness vanished and she no longer tried to hide her nipples showing through her gown. She picked up a magazine and flipped through the pages, like her partners in the waiting area.
A nurse walked in and out and it was a good fifteen minutes before a different nurse came out and called out, ‘Suma’ which sounded more like ‘Syumah’ as in Tuna. Suma put her magazine down and got up. The nurse gave her a pleasant smile and said ‘Hello, follow me this way’. Suma obeyed and walked behind the nurse. They walked down another hallway and entered another room. This room had a white tall machine on one side, a chair and monitor on the other side. There were a couple of empty chairs against the wall where the door was. This nurse was probably in her fifties and reminded Suma of her mother. The nurse asked her to untie her gown and asked which nipple was sore. ‘Left’, said Suma. The nurse came to her side and asked her to place her left breast on the transparent plate attached to the white machine. Suma did as told. The nurse came around and while saying ‘my hands will be cold’, positioned the breast in a certain way. Another plate parallel to the one on which her breast was resting was brought down with the press of a button and clamped her breast. As it went lower, the pressure mounted and Suma bit her lip to restrict her loud cry. ‘It’s painful, huh? Just a few seconds’, said the nurse and went over to the monitor. She pressed some buttons there and came back to release the plates. Suma breathed a sigh of relief. This process went on a few more times in different positions. It was not until another thirty minutes after, that the nurse finally said, ‘tie your gown and wait outside’. Suma fled from the room, never wanting to come back or do this again. Her breast hurt, she massaged it over the gown and felt no shame. She was surprised that within that hour, she had gone from a shy nipple-hiding woman to a rub-my-breast in front of other women. It hurt, really bad. She sat down with a thump. The elderly lady next to her in a similar white gown with prints looked at Suma and smiled, meaning to say, ‘yeah, it’s painful’. She leaned towards Suma and said, ‘putting a cold compress helps’. Suma smiled back and said a meek, ‘thanks’.
The elderly nurse came out and told Suma that she was good to go. Suma asked, ‘What about the result? Is everything okay?’. ‘You will get a call’, was all she got. Suma retraced her steps to the locker, then to changing room, and out the heavy door. She found Rishi drowned in his cellphone. She walked upto him and he looked up. ‘All done?’, he asked. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘What happened? What did they say?’, inquired Rishi. ‘They said they will call’. They walked out of the hospital, Suma thinking about the result, Rishi about the email he had to stop half way, when Suma came out.
It was another three days that Suma passed in anticipation of the call from the nurse. Finally on the third day, the call came.
“Is this Suma Nair?”, asked the nurse on the other end. Syoomah Nayair, Suma was used to her name being pronounced this way.
“Yes, this is her. Who is this?”, she asked.
“This is from St David’s Hospital. I am calling with regards to your Mammogram report.”, said the nurse.
“Okay, please tell me.”, Suma said, her fingers and toes crossed. The pain had been awful, she had noticed a discharge from her left nipple that morning, which she had fretted about. She told Rishi over breakfast, who brushed it like she was telling him about the neighbour’s cat, ‘we have done the test, lets see what comes out of it’.
“We had the radiologist look at the results of your Mammogram. We believe there is a mass in your left breast, behind the nipple. At this point, we would like you to meet an Oncologist. If you have a pen and paper handy, I can give you the name and number of the Oncologist we refer our patients to”, said the nurse in one breath.
Suma didn’t quite understand what the nurse was telling her.
“Who is an Onnn-koo-lo-….?”, she asked.
The nurse cut her off and said, “Ms Nayair, an Oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer. We are not saying you have cancer, we see something which needs to be further investigated by an Oncologist. Do you have a pen and paper handy Ms Nayair?”.
“Ms Nayair… “.
“Hello… Hello… Ms. Nayair.. are you there? Ms Nayair…”.