Three minutes

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Three minutes

Three minutes is fairly insignificant and probably more than the time it will take to read this vignette.

    “It will only take three minutes.” I was already concerned. Why are they putting me back in? I had just come out of a PET (positron emission tomography) scanner for the investigation of an abdominal tumour. I was in the best place, possibly in the world. I was in the best hands.

    “Just empty your bladder and we will pop you back in. Nothing to worry about; we just need to check something. It will only take three minutes.”

    They strap me in, and I slide back into the scanner. There really isn’t much room, but I am not claustrophobic. It is OK. And it is only three minutes anyway. The imaging begins.

    I start counting down the minutes in my head.

    It must be two by now. It is pretty uncomfortable, but I will be out soon. I wonder what else they wanted to do.

    OK, three minutes is up. I’ll give it a bit longer. It is difficult to judge time in here. Three minutes, that is very precise isn’t it? Not a few. Not five. He must have meant three exactly.

    It must be three by now. It feels like four or five. I’ll count up to 60, slowly.

    Five minutes. Something must be wrong. What have they found? There must be something bad. That is the only reason.

    Six minutes. They should not have said three. They are looking at the metastases, aren’t they?

    Seven minutes. I try cranking my head up to catch someone’s eye. Trying to work out a diagnosis from the way they are standing. Shall I say something? I keep quiet.

    Eight minutes. It must be metastases. What am I going to do? I have a two year old.

    Nine minutes. Maybe it is not the end. Chemotherapy must be an option. Just take me out now.

    Ten minutes. The rollers start, and I slide out anxiously looking for someone.

    Thankfully, there were no metastases and my subsequent surgery was successful. I do not actually know how long I was in there. I cannot fault the expertise of the people who did the test. They rightly just wanted to double check something. Telling me the time was an innocuous comment designed to put me at ease, but every word counts. Building up expectations, however small, in people in a fragile state of mind can have consequences that might not be obvious. As a doctor, I thought that I was effective at communicating, but I must have said things like this in the past. As a patient, those extra minutes were some of the longest in my life.

BMJ 2016; 352 doi: