Fantastic Voyage

In 1966, when movies still cost 50 cents and popcorn a quarter, I went with a friend to the Peekskill Paramount movie theatre on a Saturday afternoon to huddle in the crowded balcony with a bunch of other giggly, wise-cracking kids and watch Fantastic Voyage.

In what has become a sci-fi classic, a team of miniaturized surgeons enter the body of a scientist to zap a life-threatening, inoperable blot clot in his brain; the scientist is the only person in the world who knows how to make the miniaturization state last more than an hour, a secret essential to U.S. Cold War military strategy.

The team travels in a mini submarine through blood vessels and organs, battling antibodies along the way and a fiendish saboteur in their midst. If that isn’t enough to pique your curiosity, the movie stars a very young Rachel Welch and won two Academy Awards for some pretty neat special effects before the days of computer animation.

I’ve been thinking of this movie lately and just added it to my Netflix queue. One of the curious aspects of living with a complicated disease for so long is that I’ve seen more and more of my own internal landscape in recent years. With each new complication of my scleroderma, there are tests and more tests. And with digital imagery and optic probes the norm in medicine, and X-ray results easily viewed on an exam room computer screen, I’ve seen some pretty fantastic, albeit sometimes disturbing, sights.

There are the basics—all the many, many X-rays of my deteriorating hands, with each iteration revealing less bone at the fingertips and more starbursts of calcium floating under the skin. There are some foot X-rays, too, more recent, to confirm calcinosis in my toes.

There was the MRI of my chest a few years ago, when a CT scan to check rasping in my right lung (a possible sign of interstitial lung disease) revealed a questionable spot. It turned out, my pulmonologist explained while we toured the results on his computer screen, that the spot was nothing to worry about, just evidence that I’d contracted histoplasmosis years before, probably while spelunking one weekend near Pittsburgh when I was in grad school. As he scrolled through the MRI, the inside of my lungs revolved like the ceiling of a planetarium speckled with tiny white stars. Some scarring, yes, but so far, nothing too debilitating.

There have been regular echocardiograms to monitor signs of pulmonary hypertension, a late-stage scleroderma risk. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to doze through this non-invasive but often uncomfortable procedure, which requires the tech to press a rolling probe all over my chest and ribcage. Other times I’ll distract myself by watching the dark computer screen, with its blue and red images of blood surging through my heart, like an animated deKooning.

More tests. A CT scan of my brain and skull X-ray one Fourth of July weekend when I started to go numb on the left side of my face. Cross-sections of my very own convoluted gray matter. Yes, that’s where all those thoughts and images and feelings ping around. No stroke, thank God; rather, an inflamed trigeminal nerve was the culprit. But there was something eerie about seeing an image of my own facial skeleton, not some Halloween mask—the exact position of my eye sockets, nasal cavity, cheekbones, jaw—shades of what will remain when the rest of me turns to dust.

Of course, there have been all the routine images, too—ultrasounds of my womb when I was pregnant with Emily, the squashed elliptical pancakes of my breasts as seen on a mammogram, a slew of dental X-rays revealing how some of the roots of my teeth are resorbing—a rare scleroderma complication. Fortunately, I slept through my colonoscopy a few years ago.

I’ve seen the pink marbled walls of my bladder and the black-and-white image of a PICC line snaking into one underarm vein and then the other, when the first side was blocked by too much scarring. Not fun.

Most intriguing, once we got past the unpleasantness of inserting an optical probe through my nose, was a view of my pharynx. This took place when I saw a speech therapy specialist a few years ago to evaluate problems with swallowing. There are times that I feel like food gets stuck in the back of my throat, and I worry about choking. She handed me items to swallow—crackers, apple sauce, Jello—tinged with Kelly Green food dye, so we could see if the pathway to my windpipe closed properly as I ate. It did, a great relief, and also fascinating. I thought of a camera lens opening and closing when you squeeze the shutter.

I’m sure, as time goes on and my scleroderma does its own thing and medical technology becomes ever more sophisticated, I’ll see even more of my innards. Not the kinds of images you put in your photo album, like pregnancy ultrasounds. But miraculous, nonetheless. Even if the reason we’re digging around with probes and such is due to damage caused by an insidious disease, I’m still amazed by the view.

We take our bodies for granted, all the inner workings so hidden beneath our skin. If we could see what was really going on inside, all the intricacies of our interior universe, how the balance here affects the balance there, would we take better care?

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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