the healing muse

Volume 12, 2012

Unspecified

Judith Lavelle

      I remember rolling digital thermometers under my tongue in the offices of elementary school nurses. I would press them hard against my palate, flicking them from side to side, creating friction, generating heat. If I had a fever—and I always knew I did—I wanted to make sure the thermometer would capture it. I wanted to make sure it would produce those perfect numbers: 100, 101, 102 °F. In childhood, I coaxed these little machines like a photographer frames his shot. I wasn’t faking; I just didn’t trust the instrument to quantify my pain and justify my missed cursive lesson. I didn’t trust those disposable, thick, plastic hygienic sleeves over the mouthpiece to be sensitive enough to detect my fever before it cooked my brain. And so I fiddled with it. Their backs turned as I turned my mouth into a furnace, those nurses were none-the-wiser when they sent me home for the afternoon with a, “Oh no, 100...poor baby...”

      Though it undermines my credibility as a scientist to even say this, I think I do the same thing in the lab sometimes. I like to think this comes not out of perfectionism or an obsession with nice, even results, per se, but with an overwhelming respect for the theoretical. When the empirical data come out so inconclusive or contrary to what the theory elegantly suggests, I breathe a heavy sigh of disappointment. My map had landed me nowhere. But I knew I read it right. In theory, something that Wednesday night had made my arm turn purple. Injury unapparent, that something should have been an elegant little blood clot in my subclavian vein. So the literature says. So the theory suggests.

      The ultrasound technician squirts a good handful of pleasantly warm gel on my forearm and spreads it around with the wand. The images on screen are ominous nonsense, pulsing circles of red and blue in a sea of white and charcoal gray. With the press of a button, there are noises too. “Womp.” “Psh.” “Shlsh.”

      I look up at the pretty tech in floral scrubs. Her eyes narrow. Her lips purse. I squirm in my bed. I roll my shoulder, push the blades together a little, tilt my neck. I catch myself. You’re doing it again, I think. You’re fiddling. And I am. I’m coaxing the machine. Hypoxic arm and all, I still don’t trust it to pick up the flaw.

      “I’m not a doctor,” says the ultrasound tech with a smile, “but I don’t think you have anything to worry about. The test looks good.”

      The test looks good.

      I look down at my arm, and a sinister swollen hand stares back at me. Was this a delusion? This is not a fever failing to register on a cheap thermometer; this is a purple limb. Hours later, the discharge nurse sees it differently. “Unspecified arm pain,” he nods when I tell him that, yes, it still hurts. Unquantified pain. Unexplained discoloration. An inelegant answer.

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