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Column - Colonoscopies - trust me! - save lives

MinnesotaCare probably saved my life.

The month of June, which is usually my favorite month, was punctuated - sometimes painfully (ouch!) - by dental and doctor appointments.

During this month, July, those visits will continue - into early August, in fact.

This is not the best way to spend a summer. However, it's been a good June, despite the pain, because things got fixed that had to be fixed. Like all of the Dalmans, I grew up blissfully unaware of doctors and hospitals. We were all lucky, health-wise. One of us would have had to be bleeding, crawling on hands and knees and gasping for breath before we'd even think of calling a doctor. Dr. Dad's favorite "prescription" for everything - even a sprained ankle - was a shot of brandy in hot water with a pinch or two of nutmeg. Seemed to work.

For several years I was without health insurance. It had become so expensive, at my age, I had to drop it. But even when I had insurance, I almost never went to the doctor for a check-up. Then, in early May, I was accepted into the MinnesotaCare health-insurance program. And now, it is time, I vowed to myself, to get a thorough medical checkup. The results of the check-up were fairly good - for my age, anyway. The doctor then suggested I get a colonoscopy, which I'd never had. Since I know a friend who'd survived colon cancer, a colonoscopy sounded like a long-overdue good idea.

During the exam, the doctor discovered a large growth in the upper part of my colon that had to be removed. For five days, I was living in anguish - certain in my mind it would prove to be cancerous. Day after day, before the surgery, life seemed to be fading from me as if a big eraser was wiping out every minute-by-minute experience. Everything I did, from eating a meal to reading a book, seemed to be quite pointless, poised on the edge of personal extinction, of oblivion.

Then, one morning, the doctor's secretary called me to say the biopsy came back negative. No cancer. I felt like a prisoner on death row, suddenly reprieved.

Later, in a pre-surgery chat with the doctor, he mentioned that such growths generally have a 50-50 percent chance of being cancerous. Perhaps part of that growth is cancerous and perhaps cancer would be detected in lymph nodes. We wouldn't know for sure until after he removed 15 inches of my upper colon.

One day, I woke up and heard Mr. Rogers warbling happily on a TV set. Where was I? The room seemed to be fading in and out. Did I die and wake up in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood? Then I realized I was in a post-surgery recovery room. The public-TV channel was doing a re-run of a very old Mr. Rogers' show. I felt woozy but just fine, thanks probably to the subdermal painkiller coursing through my blood.

Suddenly, I heard, "Hi, Dennis!"

I looked up from my bed and there was a smiling Dr. Tims leaning over me.

"Good news!" he said. "No cancer! None at all!"

I just about levitated out of that bed.

"Doctor, you're better than Mr. Rogers!" I said, pointing to the TV. "My life is suddenly a brand new neighborhood. I feel great."

Tims is famous for his dead-pan humor.

"Don't worry," he said, smiling mischievously. "Reality is just down the block around the corner."

By which I think he meant the post-surgical pain that was to come or, down the road, another bout with a Big Medical Crisis.

In the meantime, the St. Cloud Hospital experience - much to my surprise - was a lot of fun. Like a grizzled king returned from exile, I was waited on hand-and-foot by a large bevy of nurses and personal-care attendants. They were not only energetic experts, they were so much fun as they fired off volleys of feisty wisecracks and indulged in hilarious antics. I've never met so many good people, so many "fun" people, in one place in my entire life. The jokes and pranks were flying non-stop the way they do in the "M.A.S.H." series.

Now, recuperating at home, the reality the doctor predicted has invaded my jolly "neighborhood." Aches and pains come pounding at my door. I miss those nurses, those guardian angels.

But despite the pains (medical and dental), I'm glad for this summer. At times I feel like an old car that just had a complete overhaul. Better late than never.

I have been urging everyone who will listen: Do NOT put off an annual medical checkup, and if you are older than 50, schedule a colonoscopy immediately, especially if you have insurance that will cover all or part of it. It bothers me when people disregard that advice, the way I used to.

Colonoscopies - trust me - are completely painless. What's more, they can save your life.