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Bringing Back the 'Treasure Box:' Why I Treat Myself After Medical Procedures

Remember when you were a kid? After a dental cleaning or visit with the pediatrician, you got a prize. Maybe it was a sticker, a lollipop, a brand-new toothbrush or a chance to select a little toy from the “treasure box.” Maybe, if you were undergoing treatments that were more complicated, you had a colorful certificate taped on your hospital room’s window or you got to ring a bell. It sent a message: “We know this was a frightening or painful experience for you, but you got through it!”

As adults, we don’t get to go through the treasure box anymore. There aren’t any lollipops or stickers at the end of doctors’ visits — just bills and worries about how to pay them. We’re expected to have the maturity to understand that some of the tasks we need to complete in life are unpleasant, and we just need to buck up and get on with them without expecting applause or a gold star for our participation. When we’re having that appointment or procedure, the reward is — hopefully — another step on the road to diagnosis or health management, even though it does not always happen that way.

When we grow up, we do discover that some things aren’t as bad as we once thought they were (we also discover some things are way worse, but that’s another story). When I was a kid, getting blood drawn was a nightmare for me. I was so terrified of the procedure that I once screamed until I literally turned blue; another time, several people had to hold me down so the nurse could find a vein. In another incident, I actually ran down a hospital hallway and made a break for the elevators to avoid blood work. If it wasn’t for those dastardly, double-sided elevator doors and a quick-thinking, fast-moving resident, I might have actually gotten away. Even when I was a teenager, every time I went to the doctor I hoped and prayed they wouldn’t need blood, and the mere sight of a butterfly needle made me cringe.

As an adult, blood tests aren’t exactly my idea of fun, but I no longer dissolve into a pile of tears when I need to have them. I go into the lab, suggest an arm for them to use, look away and get on with it. Considering how often I need to have blood drawn, my life would be very difficult if I hadn’t found a way to get past that childhood terror.

However, I wish there was far more acknowledgement that doctors’ visits, procedures, chronic illnesses and hospitalization don’t magically stop being frightening, stressful or intimidating because we’re adults. Yes, perhaps we’re far more aware of what’s happening than we might have been as children, but that’s a double-edged sword. Pain is pain. Fear is fear. Unfamiliar medical equipment can be intimidating regardless of your age. Going through an unpleasant procedure is unpleasant whether you’re 5 or 50, and if you’re the latter, most of the medical staff you encounter aren’t going to take the time to check in with you emotionally. They’re kind (hopefully), but they want to do their jobs and move on to the next patient on the schedule. When I recently had some MRIs, I was stunned and incredibly impressed when the compassionate tech actually came on the intercom periodically to ask how I was doing, because that doesn’t always happen.

Yes, unlike our 5-year-old selves we do have the power to refuse procedures, but that might mean our issues don’t get treated and end up causing more problems, so we often just do what we need to do. We end up developing our own coping techniques…or not. Mine tends to be talking. If it’s not going to interfere with anyone’s concentration, I always ask the doctor or nurse to casually talk to me about something completely unrelated so I can distract myself. If I can’t chat, I meditate. However, I often find myself drained by medical appointments, regardless — the long hours of travel to get there, the appointments themselves and the painful procedures which may have happened. I’m exhausted 99 percent of the time anyway due to the chronic illnesses I have, several of which cause extreme fatigue.

Last year, after a skin biopsy that required stitches, I had about 15 minutes before the next scheduled bus. I went into a nearby drugstore to kill time, take advantage of the air conditioning and stay out of the sun. While I was there, I spotted a Hot Wheels car designed in the style of Darth Vader’s suit of armor. Normally I’d have walked away — I have a non-existent budget and can’t afford to buy things I don’t really need — but I found myself turning around and buying the car. I decided it would be my reward to myself for getting through the biopsy, and it was $3.99 well spent. Thus began my habit of treating myself after medical procedures.

My skin biopsy had positive margins, but when I went back in for round two, the anesthesia didn’t take enough and I actually felt my skin being cut. I ended up with another little car. An ER visit merited two. Another difficult procedure yielded a $2.99 keychain version of Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber. An MRI that really rattled me? A Star Wars puzzle from the dollar store down the block from the imaging center. Spending the evening putting it together took my mind off the potentially stressful outcome of the test. A tiny $2 Darth Vader tin. A $1 reusable bag with Darth Vader. (Yes, you might be sensing a theme here.)

My “treasure box treats” are never expensive; they’re never grandiose. It’s whatever I find when I’m transferring between buses or trains on my way home from the doctor’s office. I can’t do something for every single appointment or test — there are way too many for that — but I try to do something after the more stressful ones. Alternatively, if I’ve had a week with a lot of appointments and procedures back to back, I celebrate when I’m finally finished. I’ve actually never particularly enjoyed shopping, unless I’m in a book or comics store, and as such, I don’t generally engage in retail therapy. Nowadays there are utilitarian reasons for this, too: I have neither the money nor the energy to spare for it. However, giving myself a small treat or activity allows me to end the day on a positive note. I’m acknowledging, “You got through it. Onwards!”

I often try to find free things to do on the way home to avoid spending any money at all. For example, I discovered that my cardiologist’s office was close to a tall building with an observation deck. Not only was it free to the public, but it was actually across the street from the bus stop I needed. When I went for a follow-up after several days of cardiac testing, I stopped at the observation deck after my appointment. In another instance, when I had an appointment with a new doctor in a neighborhood with a lot of historic buildings, I took photos of the vintage signs I saw on my way back to the train station.

At the end of the day, I really don’t need a Hot Wheels car or another lightsaber any more than I really needed that little plastic toy from the treasure box when I was a kid. However, there’s something to be said for the moments of whimsy and joy that make me smile. I spend a lot of time in doctors’ offices, and it sometimes seems like my chronic illnesses steal all focus. They certainly influence almost every aspect of my life at this point.

That small treat or half-hour excursion reminds me I have many other facets to my life and personality. I’m not just a name on a medical chart. I’m also a “Star Wars” geek. An eternal traveler who has wandered through five continents and always explored the cities she’s lived in, taking photos of everything that even remotely interested her. A woman with an analytical mind who likes puzzles. A music fan. I’m me.

I treat myself to remember myself. And those $3.99 cars have been worth every single penny.