Waiting room

Today I had a mammogram that had originally been scheduled for May, when nonessential medical procedures were postponed. It was the first time I’d ventured into a medical building since before the pandemic, and like every other aspect of life in the age of Corona, the old routines are distinctly different now.

There were three burly security guards at the entrance of the medical facility, all masked. Immediately inside was a screening station where you had to answer medical questions before picking up a disposable mask and a bright green GUEST decal that indicated you’d passed the health screening.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking an elevator even though signs indicated only one or two passengers were allowed at a time; instead, I took the stairs to my appointment on the fifth floor. In the hallways, drinking fountains were barricaded “out of an abundance of caution,” and decals on the floor indicated where to stand and wait for the receptionist to check you in.

In the waiting room, three chairs were spaced with wide empty space between them. There were no magazines or tables: nothing that could be touched and need to be disinfected. After my name was called, the mammographer took me directly into the exam room: gone was the extra step of disrobing in a partitioned changing room where you could leave your clothes in a locker. Again, having a separate changing room created too many surfaces to disinfect.

Instead, the mammographer left me alone in the exam room–just me, the massive mammography machine, and a lone chair–to disrobe and change into a gown she’d left for me: just one gown instead of the piles of small, medium, and large ones you’d normally choose from in the changing room.

Mammography is a high-touch procedure: it simply cannot be done while observing social distance. There is a lot of manipulating as the mammographer positions your breast on the glass plates of the mammography machine, and the two of you are in close contact–like dance partners, intertwined–for the minute or two it takes for her to arrange your arms and shoulders out of the imaging plane: turn your face this way, turn your torso that way, lean your shoulder here, point your feet and backside there.

The mammographer steps behind a plexiglass shield when she takes the actual images, telling you when to breathe and when to hold your breath, and during the procedure you are literally hugging the imaging equipment, your hands gripping the same hand-holds as every other woman who has gone before you. For this reason, the mammographer wiped down the machine before my procedure, explaining that she cleans the equipment after each patient leaves and again within sight of the next patient, a redundancy I appreciated.

When the procedure was done, I waited briefly for the results in case the radiologist wanted more images. Again, I waited in the exam room itself–one less space to sanitize–trying not to think about how many other women before me had sat and exhaled in the same chair in the same enclosed room.

I would never say that mammography is a tender procedure: mammographers manipulate your body in ways that would be manhandling in any other context, and the machine itself smashes and irradiates tissue that is particularly sensitive to pressure. But as my mammographer twisted my body into place, telling me to turn my face directly toward hers, I found myself holding my breath to save her from the tender intimacy of my (masked) exhalation.