I Accidentally Got Drunk at the Doctor's Office
I didn't realize it until I was driving home
I was sixteen years old. I had my own car, a little boxy 1985 four-door I’d bought from a cousin for $250. It had a CD player installed in the dash, a pack of cigarettes tucked into the sun visor, and a checkbook in the glove box. I had a pocketful of waitressing money, a pager with half a dozen interchangeable cases, and a boyfriend who was teaching me Spanish. I was headed to college soon. Life was mostly going my way.
It didn’t feel like so great, though, when I was doubled over from the stabbing pain in my abdomen.
It had been going on intermittently, unpredictably, for months, and I had tried everything. I’d taken psych meds and antacids. I’d had an upper endoscopy and a gastric emptying study.
Nothing much seemed to be the problem.
The doctor suspected maybe I had some mild reflux, but in order to confirm, I needed to undergo something he called a pH-probe study.
It sounded innocent enough. A probe was sent up the nose and swallowed down through the esophagus. It sat there for a day, monitoring the area just above the stomach opening, to see if acid was backing up through the sphincter muscle. And then, the next day, it was removed and the results were analyzed.
“Sign me up,” I said. I was desperate for some answers.
When I arrived at the doctor’s office on the morning of the appointment, my mother was already sitting in the waiting room. It was 7:00 and the place was deserted — there were no other patients, no receptionist, not even any doctors. My mom needed to sign the consent for me, but she needed to be at work early, and so we’d both driven our own cars and Mom would go to work while I drove back home. No big deal.
The nurse introduced herself with a smile. “Nothing to eat or drink after midnight?” she asked me. I nodded.
“Okay, very good,” she said, and handed my mother and me each a clipboard. Clipped onto mine was a four-page intake form, while Mom’s had a simple one-line consent form — essentially a permission slip for the simple procedure that was to follow.
She signed, and then hugged me goodbye, leaving me to fill out the rest of the redundant and exhausting forms. There should really be a computer system for this, I thought, trying to keep my eyes from glazing over.
When the nurse took me into the room, she first asked me to drink the contents of a small plastic cup. “This is the same stuff the dentist gives you to numb your mouth before giving you a filling,” she explained.
“Novocaine?” I asked.
“Lidocaine, actually,” she corrected. “It numbs your throat so it’s more comfortable.”
I nodded and then shrugged, knocking back the foul-tasting liquid.
After a few minutes, the nurse was ready to begin. She inserted the probe up through my nose, and I could feel it sliding backward and then curving around and down the back of my throat. She gave me a glass of water and asked me to drink it as she maneuvered the probe into position. “The swallowing helps it go down,” she said.
I’d thought I was doing well until the probe hit just the right spot, and hurk! The Lidocaine and the water came right back up all over that sweet nurse’s lap.
“Maybe some more Lidocaine?” I offered.
“And maybe we’ll keep the trash can close by,” she responded with a tight smile.
We tried twice more, each time after a gulp of Lidocaine and a five-minute wait. Each time, the probe got to my epiglottis and my gag reflex said, “No, thanks.”
Eventually, we threw in the towel — the figurative one, and also the literal one the nurse had given me to cover my lap. I left disappointed but not much worse for the wear. She’d had it worse than I had, for sure.
I buckled into my twelve-year-old old car and pulled out of the parking lot. The office was in the city, and it was rush hour. I wasn’t used to driving on the highway, especially this far south, but I was a good and conscientious young driver, and I wasn’t worried.
I turned my head over my left shoulder to merge onto the highway and caught a glimpse of a 70-mile-per-hour tractor-trailer coming towards me, just before everything went black.
I swung my head back forward and blinked. Nothing. I took my foot off the gas, hoping to — actually, I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish. Not to get hit by a tractor-trailer going 70 miles per hour, I guess. I angled the car to what I judged to be a safe line as my vision gradually came back, and somehow I safely merged behind the big truck.
My fingernails dug into my palms around the steering wheel. I took a few deep breaths, trying to figure out what to do next. My eyesight cleared, mercifully, but all it revealed was a sea of cars, all traveling nearly bumper-to-bumper at highway speeds.
There was no shoulder to pull onto. I had no way to call for help, even if I did pull over. Fat lot of good my pager did me, with all its translucent colors.
With the infinite wisdom of a sixteen-year-old, I decided I needed to just stay the course and refrain from making any sudden moves.
It was still a long drive home, and I stayed in the right lane, cruising along just at the speed limit, using all my strength to hold my eyes open and keep my eyes straight ahead. I took note of the exit signs as they came up, each an indicator that I was closer to getting home without catastrophe.
It was these curious white-on-green signs which gave me yet another indication that, though I was still conscious, I was most definitely not okay. Each time I read an exit’s name, I would burst out in uncontrollable giggles at the curiosity of the word. “Parvin,” I said aloud to myself. “PAR-vinnnnnnnn.” Giggle. “Clayyyyy-COOOOO-moooooo,” I said in a deep, movie-announcer voice. “Claycomo. Clay. Co. Mo. When did the exits around here get so weird?”
Eyes ahead, I reminded myself. But then I saw a new sign. “Pleasant Valley,” I sang. “Oh, that’s a soothing name. Pleasant.”
Hey, Nicci. I think you’re drunk, said a voice from somewhere inside my head.
I’d never been drunk before — never even had an alcoholic beverage before, as a matter of fact — and of course as an unaccompanied driver with no cell phone, I was unable to confirm my suspicion. My best guess, though, was that drinking so much Lidocaine on an empty stomach had gotten to my head. Once again, I judged that the best thing to do would be to just keep driving north and get home as quickly and safely as possible, especially now that I was in familiar territory.
I blinked a few times and kept my opinions to myself for the rest of the ride — which became easier as the exits turned from unusual words to rural highway numbers (with the exception of a quick chuckle when I got to 69 Highway).
I managed to make it to the house in one piece. I called my mother from our land line to let her know I’d gotten home, and that I hadn’t gotten the probe, and that the nurse had inadvertently gotten me wasted before driving me home. We laughed about it, dismissing it as a curious incident. For reasons I can’t fathom, we didn’t notify anyone about what had happened.
We had nearly forgotten about the incident, and my ill-advised choices along the way, when an envelope arrived from the doctor’s office. Inside was the check my mother had left for the $10 copay. Since I never ended up getting the probe, they never cashed the check.
To this day, I contend that they should have given the $10, and then some, to that sweet, patient nurse for her trouble.
This story first appeared on Medium.