So my doctor said I needed a Barium Swallow.  I wasn’t sure if he was talking about a pill, a bird, or some kind of torture, but he gave me an official permission slip and sent me off to the local medical building where I usually put in an annual appearance for my mammogram. 

(Yes, I suppose I should warn you–this blog post is going into personal areas where I don’t usually go. Trust me, though, I do have boundaries.) 
Instructions for the Barium Swallow (which I Googled to find) included drinking lots of fluids on the day before the Big Event and eating lots of fruits and vegetables, then nothing after midnight.  So when you show up for the grand event, your tummy should be empty.  Why?  Because you are going to be swallowing Barium (surprise!) which is apparently a liquid metallic substance that shows up on an X-ray.  These x-rays can tell a doctor with medical school plus 12 years of training in radiology if you can swallow or not.  Plus a few other medical mysteries which the common layman is not permitted to know unless absolutely necessary. 
So I showed up at the medical center at 9:3o and was in the middle of watching a You-tube video on my iPhone when the nurse came to get me.  I was taken to the same mini-locker room where I go every year for that other procedure, and told to put on a scrub top. 
I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided that I could live in a scrub suit–you know, those colorful V-neck tops that surgeons and nurses and medical techs wear.  As I sat in a waiting room with several other grim-faced women who were pretending to watch morning television, I happily announced that I thought we looked pretty fetching in our medical garb–drapes for the mammogram ladies, scrub tops for the swallows, etc.  One woman came out in teal robe and a blanket.  I don’t know what kind of procedure you’re in for if you have to put on an entire robe and a blanket, but it can’t be good. I told her the color looked particularly nice on her.  She smiled. 
After a few minutes, the tech came to get me.  I was taken to a room occupied by a monster machine–a huge board that looked like an operating table stood on end, a chair, and rails across the ceiling.  The tech there asked the operative question:  “How long have you had trouble swallowing?” 
 I assured him that I did NOT have trouble swallowing, I’ve always been able to eat without any problem at all, which is probably a problem of the dietary kind.  When he gave me a why-are-you-here look, I said that I’d been driving around Ireland with pressure in my chest.  Nothing major, but unusual.  And the doc said I ought to get it checked out since it persisted long after I stopped driving on the wrong side of the road. 
So the nice tech man gave me two little cups–one filled with little white crystals and the second filled with water–the chaser.  “Chug the crystals,” he said, “and wash them down with water. And then, if you can help it, don’t burp.” 
Well.  I told him I wasn’t much of a chugger, but I’d give it my best shot.  So I did–tasted like a mouthful of Sprite.  Afterward, he congratulated me on my excellent accomplishment (I’m always tickled at how they exclaim over things like swallowing and chugging and other bodily functions), then he asked me to stand up against the standing-up-table.  I did, and the tech left to go find the radiologist. 
And while I was standing there–because I’d endured a night without water, a morning without food, and far too many hours without caffeine, I confess. I released a silent, ladylike burp.  Twice. 
My first thought upon seeing the doctor was that Mr. Rogers had come back as a blonde.  The radiologist was very calm, very smiley, and very proficient.  The tech handed me a cup filled with chalky stuff and told me to drink it, but not to swallow until instructed to, then to swallow very fast.  Have you ever tried to swallow on command?  It’s harder than you might think. 
The thing is–when you swallow, they snap a picture.  I was able to swivel my eyeballs toward the monitor, where I could see my esophagus in black and white, flexing and swallowing and doing all the things an esophagus is supposed to do.  After every drink-and-swallow, both the tech and the doc congratulated me on a job well done.  
Then the doc handed me a little white pill in a cup and told me to swallow it on command.  I did, and from behind the screen I heard him say, “That thing just flew by!” 
By this time I was preening.   I am a champion swallower.  Mom, do you remember how hard it was for me to swallow pills as a kid?  I can now list swallowing as a skill on my resume. 
Then the table tilted backward and I rode it over, swallowing and drinking and sipping while x-rays flashed and pictures were taken.  Finally it was all over and the tech assured me I had been a model patient. 
I have never felt so affirmed.  
Back to the locker room, where I put on my regular clothes (bidding a reluctant farewell to that comfortable scrub top)  and prepared to go find food and caffeine.  If the doctor discovers anything, he’ll call my doctor.  In the mean time, I have places to go and a book to write.  
So if you ever have to have a barium swallow, it’s okay.  Tastes a little like strawberry, even though the goop is white.  Drink lots of water afterward, they told me, so you can flush the stuff out of your system. 
Eeek.  I’d better start drinking, or I’m liable to set off the airport metal detectors when I fly to California tomorrow.  Yes, I’m heading out again, teaching and then vacationing for a couple of days with the hubby in California.  (No, I don’t have a Florida hubby and a California hubby. Just the one.) 
P.S.  If you find this fascinating (I never know), you can find a video of Nick R’s Barium Swallow here.  This is NOT my esophagus. Boundaries, you see. 


  1. Mocha with Linda

    Oh, what fun. . . .As a nurse who worked on the colon/rectal unit years ago when stuff like that was inpatient before surgery, I feel for you. Drink that water!! Believe me, setting off the scanners is the least of your worries. 🙂

    Just be glad it was a barium swallow and not a barium en*ma. Yep, they do those too!

    (No CLEAR boundaries there!! LOL)

  2. Suzanne

    And now I know a whole bunch more than I did before! 🙂

    Don’t you just love reading of mundane experiences? I do. Blogs are fascinating to me.

    Happy flying & vacationing with the hubby!

  3. The Koala Bear Writer

    That’s so funny! I love how they kept telling you that you were doing great… 🙂 You have a great sense of humour.

  4. sara

    it seems to have gotten a lot better since I had my “swallow” some 18 years ago. I won’t go into it (boundaries) but I did tell the tech that I thought I might vomit. His comment….you wouldn’t be the first! Glad to know it is better, though I hope I never have to find out!!! 🙂

  5. Kay

    I had to do barium when I was about 10 and again as a 20something. Both times were to look at my stomach and such, so I just drank it all down before the x-rays. I never thought the stuff was that bad, even when I was 10. It was like a chalky shake.

    I’m so proud of you for a job well done! Actually, you would be surprised at how many people can’t do those kinds of things well. The world is full of people who can’t follow directions.


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