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The Joys of Having a Small Bowel Follow Through

This morning, I woke up much earlier than usual so that I would be ready when my mom arrived at 7:30 am to drive me to an appointment down at Albany Memorial Hospital. The name of the wonderful procedure I had done is a small bowel follow through to check out my terminal ileum. The quick explanation of this test goes as follows: you drink some barium and wait for it to move through your digestive tract so the radiologist can take x-rays of your small intestine. But that barely scratches the surface of the experience.

Per the instructions I was given, I did not eat or drink anything after midnight last night. This was very difficult for me, because I usually keep a beverage on my nightstand at bedtime due to the dry mouth I suffer from. Then I got up at an ungodly hour so my mom could battle morning rush hour traffic to get me to the hospital for my 8:15 check-in at patient registration. The procedure was scheduled for 8:30.

Despite my choice of clothing – only fabric, no metal, buttons, or other fasteners – I had to strip down to my underwear, socks, and shoes. I was given two hospital gowns. The first was meant to open in the back, while the second was to wear as a robe to provide some decency. Please take note of how fashionable I was in these gowns.

Double Hospital Gown

I got called in right around 8:30 so a technician could take my preliminary x-ray, lying on my back on the x-ray table. I was then asked to sit up and drink a cup of barium. “It’s unflavored,” I was warned. I opted to use a straw and joked that the reason they don’t let you eat or drink first is so you’re so thirsty you’ll drink anything. I was praised for looking on the bright side. Then I choked down a cup of the vile fluid and was told to lie down on the table again, this time on my stomach. This was my “zero minute” x-ray. Or maybe she said “minute zero.” It was one or the other.

Without apology, she handed me another cup of barium I had to drink within the next 15 minutes. But this time, I was allowed to do so in the waiting room sitting next to my mom. This time, I gagged every time I tried to swallow. It was awful. I had to take deep breaths between attempts, and I lamented that I could not throw up, because then I’d just have to start all over again. By the time the technician returned for me, the line on the cup read 50 cc left, and “almost but not quite” is apparently good for horseshoes, hand grenades, and barium consumption.

An x-ray was taken. I was informed that the barium was still in my stomach. I was asked whether or not food usually sat in my stomach for a while after eating. I had no idea. Everything from below my chest down to my hip bones is “stomach” to me.

My new instructions were to walk around the imaging department, taking all left turns. Like a test drive or a racetrack, but without a cool car. And wearing a double hospital gown. The idea was to get my metabolism moving so the barium would move out of my stomach and into my intestines.

Eventually, after about 20 minutes, the technician was waiting for me, joking with my mom that “they always come back around if I wait here long enough.” We went back to take another x-ray. No luck. Back to doing laps.

I am a very shy person. Some people would have no problem strutting around the hospital feeling the breeze underneath the hospital gowns. I was embarrassed, but I was assured by one hospital employee that this was a daily sight. I passed the same nurses, technicians, orderlies, doctors, and administrative staff members dozens of times. It was the other patients – the ones who weren’t there for gastrointestinal reasons – who made me the most self-conscious. I explained to one inquisitive older man in a wheelchair that apparently I just don’t metabolize barium fast enough. One doctor asked me how many miles I’d walked so far. I mused 10 or 12, at least. It got a laugh.

I went through the x-ray/walking cycle for over an hour. My mom thinks I was walking for about an hour and a half. Can I remind everyone that I have chronic fatigue syndrome? I was exhausted. I was dizzy, likely from low blood sugar and dehydration. I couldn’t even have a sip of water. I could’ve kissed the technician when she finally told me I was all good.

There was a short stint of sitting in the waiting room until the room with the doctor in it became available. I didn’t mind the sitting at all.

Finally, a nurse came to get me, and I was told to stand with my back against something. It turned out to be a table that tilted me all the way from vertical to horizontal. It was rather disorienting.

Dr. Hani (pronounced: Honey) Marar came in and introduced himself. He was an older gentleman with an Eastern European accent I could not identify. I was a little disappointed that he wasn’t the other doctor I’d seen walking around, a handsome man of about my age who had the look of India about him, with long black hair and well-trimmed facial hair. That man spoke with an American accent and could’ve starred in one of those Dr. Dreamy medical dramas. But I’d been way off with my “try to guess who your doctor is by the foreign-sounding name.”

If you read about the SBFT online, it says that the test should be painless. And yet, the doctor said the ominous words, “Tell me if I’m hurting you.”

The problem was that I was instructed to hold my breath every time the machine pressed down into my belly. And that’s when it hurt. Because that’s when the x-ray was taking the pictures.

The worst pain was where it usually is, on my right side, right where the terminal ileum is. (Eight hours later, and it still hurts in that area.)

But the real x-ray part there only took about three minutes. The rest was all waiting for me to digest.

I was given leave to get dressed and get out of Dodge. I had about three sips of water left in a bottle in my purse, and even though it was warm and had probably been in there for about two months, it was sweet and refreshing. Then my mom picked my grandma up, and the three of us went to lunch together.

Then there was the race to get me home. I’ll spare you the gross details, but let’s just say I’d been informed earlier “not to be alarmed; it goes in white, it comes out white.”

If you ever need to have a small bowel follow through, I really hope your gag reflex isn’t as bad as mine and your metabolic speed is higher than mine.

Christina Gleason (863 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I’m a relatively high-functioning Aspie who also lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. I am not ashamed to admit that I am in the care of a psychiatrist, who assures me that people in therapy are often better adjusted than “normal” people who are not, because at least we know what our issues are and are working on them. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including World of Warcraft and Plants vs Zombies 2. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead. I have started writing no fewer than five novels, and I hope to finish one of them...eventually.


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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Donna July 24, 2014, 5:30 pm

    That really sounds dreadful, Christina. I have been instructed to walk for what seems like hours after consuming barium for a CT scan, so maybe I have the same kind of digestive issue. :( I hope the tests give them the answers they need for you.

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