This post originally appeared May 18, 2018, on the Chile Today Hot Tamale! website. (www.chiletodayhottamale.net)
In the late 1970s, I was sitting at my desk, reading the latest issue of Science News, when I came across a remarkable advertisement. NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was looking for a new kind of astronaut. Military service as a test pilot was no longer required. NASA was looking for scientists, PhDs preferred, to go up in a new space vehicle that NASA was designing, a vehicle called the space shuttle. I sent off for the application packet immediately, hoping to become a Mission Specialist.
A few days later a pack mule arrived at my Baltimore home carrying the 6,487 pounds of paper that I needed to fill out. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the application packet was quite thick. Buried in that thick packet was a flyer giving the physical qualifications for the job, and a series of medical forms to be filled out by my personal physician. The flyer was bad news: the maximum height allowed was six feet, and I was a tad bit over six feet one inch at the time. Still, this was my chance to be Mr. Spock, and I wasn’t going to let one lousy inch, more or less, get in the way. When I took my physical, I cheated as best I could, slouching and bending my knees while they concentrated on the measuring stick at my head. The doc signed the forms, I filled out the other paperwork, and sent the whole shebang in.
If I look carefully in my footlocker, I’m sure I can find the rejection letter they sent me. It’s not something I would have thrown away. They were very pleasant, thanking me for being one of more than 7,000 applicants for the 20 slots, 10 of which were reserved for women and minority applicants. So, I would not be Mr. Spock, after all. I settled down to my mundane, humdrum existence as a research chemist at a corporate research center across the street from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Sidebar: Rejection was probably a good thing. Three of the Mission Specialists in that first class died on the Challenger.
The one thing I took away from the experience was the habit of an annual physical examination. Until the physical for NASA, I hadn’t had a physical since my senior year in high school. In theory, I received a physical exam before taking that job as a research chemist. In practice, the doctor listened to my heart and lungs, then gave me a drug test.
The physical was usually painless. The doctors never found anything wrong with me. Once, in the 1980s, a doctor gave me a flexible sigmoidoscopic examination. This was actually as bad as it sounds. According to Wikipedia: “Sigmoidoscopy is the minimally invasive medical examination of the large intestine from the rectum through the last part of the colon. There are two types of sigmoidoscopy: flexible sigmoidoscopy, which uses a flexible endoscope, and rigid sigmoidoscopy, which uses a rigid device. Flexible sigmoidoscopy is generally the preferred procedure.” Indeed!
I am not sure what the difference is between this procedure and a colonoscopy, other than the fact that I was wide awake during the procedure, over on one side, watching the monitor that displayed the doctor’s view. When I wasn’t looking at the monitor, I was looking at my abdomen. As the sigmoidoscope made its turn around sigmoid colon, I could see my abdominal wall flex outward. It was not what one would call a fantastic experience.
And that has a lot to do with why I stopped the annual physical. The summer before my 50th birthday I had my standard physical. The doctor looked at my chart, nodded, and said “I see you turn 50 soon. We have a few special tests for you next year, when you will be 50.” “Sounds good, Doc,” I said.
I never returned.
That was about 16 years ago, and I have never regretted my decision. But I am reliably informed that my no-physical streak will soon come to an end. You see, I have a cataract, and it is beginning to bug me. The folks I have talked with who have recently had cataract surgery tell me that a physical exam is now a prerequisite for surgery. I’ve got to get this cataract removed, so I guess I will be signing up for the physical soon.
And that is a shame. There isn’t a thing I can do about it. But if the doctor suggests a few special tests because I’m officially over the hill, it will be the end of the beginning of a beautiful friendship.