Swallow

Secure facility was how the doctor described it. Did he mean locked up? He looked at me.

“You’re not the type to go stir crazy.”

I wasn’t so sure.

On the day, I arrived punctually. A nurse came to take blood. I followed her to my room. A double door behind a concertina barricade: “No Unauthorized Entry,” a yellow and black symbol warned of radioactivity. Two doors opened off a short corridor. Light and airy. A view. Lead lined, she said, but you couldn’t tell.

“You can come in now, but no one is allowed in or out after the swallow.”

“Swallow?” I pictured the friendly little indigo, buff and tan birds that had swooped goodbye to me that morning.

“Iodine 131 – the capsule you’re swallowing. It kills the cancer.” She looked at me as if I was a child. I nodded, not sure my body language was saying I knew what I was doing. I had Googled ‘radioactive iodine treatment’ to exhaustion and nowhere had I come across the word swallow. She handed me a blue cotton garment.

“Get into this now. Anything you wear while you are here is nuclear waste. You won’t need your clothes until we let you out in two or three days – when your level is down. We keep your things at the desk so they’re not contaminated.”

No clothes. I hadn’t thought of that.

I stripped in the bathroom. The gown hung stiff and gaping; impossible to secure with its inflexible fabric ties. I felt cold and vulnerable. I pulled my fleece jacket on, slipped my feet into my sneakers. I shoved my running tights into a gap behind the mirror. In an evacuation I could cover my backside. Everything else went into the crinkly yellow plastic bag.

“I need my jacket and shoes. I don’t mind dumping them.”

“OK.” She approved, she took the yellow bag without looking through the contents. She was used to compliant patients.

“Drink lots of water and shower often. If you need anything, dial zero on the phone. It will buzz at the desk. Dinner is four hours after the swallow.”

I paced the room until I heard voices in the corridor. My oncologist spoke through the door hatch. The physicist entered alone trundling a stainless steel trolley. Wearing thick gloves she lifted the lid off a green anodized lead canister, removing a small glass vial. She read the dosage aloud, and held it out to the oncologist to check through the small window. She opened the vial and tipped a gel capsule into a plastic cup. Beside it stood another of water. I threw down both.

“Very good, I come in 24 hours to check you with geiger counter.”

Russian? The doors clanged shut behind them. Not locked.

At 7:30 a paper plate with plastic cutlery alongside, appeared on the ledge of the door hatch: boiled meat, boiled cauliflower, boiled potato. Cold. I slid it into the nuclear waste bin.

At the window I sipped tepid tea. My teeth snagged on the styrofoam cup. My jowls ached. I fingered my salivary glands, they had swollen, as predicted. I scanned the street. In the brittle light, through the languid evening traffic, my car shone like a beacon, alone in the carpark.

The spare key – it was hidden behind the front bumper.

Handover was at 10.

I’m coming home, my swallows.

Written by G.M. Klein – Laura, South Australia, Australia

Feature Photo by Philip Ackerman


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