A Manic Investigation into the Many Medical Uses of Lasers

Or, how to occupy your mind when your dad is undergoing prostate surgery.

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Oct 12 2018, 4:45pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

What I wish I could’ve done is laugh when my Dad told me that doctors were going to stick a laser inside of his body to blast apart his enlarged prostate, like a game of fleshy Space Invaders. It would’ve been nice to double-over, to howl incredulously and drop the phone when he clarified that they weren’t going to stick the laser up his butt like I’d originally assumed, but shoot it straight into his penis.

Because “laser dick” is just objectively funny. But I can’t laugh because I’m worried. He can’t pee. There’s a catheter attached to a bag that’s taped to his leg, concealed in his work slacks, that slowly fills with tired spurts of urine throughout the day. He’s 54. Too young for that.

While I look up the laser-blast technique, I put my dad on speaker, reciting to him what the Mayo Clinic website tells me: “During prostate laser surgery, your doctor inserts a scope through the tip of your penis into the tube that carries urine from your bladder (urethra). The prostate surrounds the urethra. A laser passed through the scope delivers energy that shrinks or removes excess tissue that is preventing urine flow.”

That’s much more palatable phrasing for laser—delivers energy. It’s like a mediocre review of an off-off-Broadway play.

I had no idea lasers could be used in this way. What immediately comes to mind for me whenever lasers are brought up are Stormtroopers. The puzzlingly fearsome, bumbling, schlub-shooters whose blaster fire is so inaccurate that it’s inspired a whole sub-genre of YouTube video compilations mocking the incompetent foot soldiers for consistently and historically missing their targets. As my dad details his visit to the doctor, I picture one of the clones, clad in shiny molded body armor, trying to line up a shot right down his urethra. It’s not comforting.

I try to sub the Stormtrooper out for Luke in an X-Wing, hovering above the table in the operating room, waiting for nurse’s signal before firing off a couple of casual, obviously on the mark, laser blasts that shimmer down the impossibly narrow corridor to hit their target first try, no problem. Prostate vaporized. The Rebels, in scrubs, rejoice.

“It’s massive,” the doctor said to my dad about his prostate while maneuvering a slender camera up his rectum; immediately knowing surgery was needed, peering at the engorged gland like a mystical orb, the answers right there, projected on its surface.

***

Lasers aren’t just for destroying intergalactic super weapons and carving prostates back to a normal size. They also whiten teeth. My dentist told me about the procedure after I lamented the coffee stain annexing more and more territory on my right canine. He mimed spreading the special peroxide gel over my teeth like Altoid-sized pieces of toast, explaining how he would then use a powerful hand-held laser to “excite” the gel, essentially bleaching my chompers. “While you would be exposed to some infrared emissions—so don’t do this if you’re pregnant or lactating—it’s generally pretty safe.”

He handed me a pamphlet about the laser whitening. I flipped through a few flimsy pages of stock photo smiles beaming encouragingly, iridescent. On the last page was a bullet-point list of benefits.

  • Dramatically whiter teeth
  • It’s laser fast
  • Long lasting effect
  • The increased self-confidence that comes from a more attractive smile

Those were all things I was interested in, especially the latter. But not for the $1,000 price-tag. That was a fair chunk of cash to pay to have a radiant/irradiated smile. I wondered if my dad’s prostate laser-blasting would expose him to radiation because prostate cancer is a commonly scary beast and you’ve got to be careful—I finally clued in. How could it have taken so long? I felt like an idiot. Why else would he need this surgery? A silence hung between us. I listened to him rinse a dish in a sink miles away. That distance doubling, tripling, as I tried to figure out what to say. I danced around it—

“So… is this… your penis lasering… indicative of anything else?”

***

I needed to relax. Days, weeks, generations fitting inside of the silence between my question and his answer. I thought about dogs. That would help. Cute dogs. Happy dogs. Fluffy dogs. Lasers. Running dogs. Jumping dogs. Lasers. Petting dogs. Lasers. Laser dogs. Dog lasers. Those exist. Of course they do. There’s a laser for anything and everything. What does a laser do for a dog? The question is, what can’t it do?

Does your dog have muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries? Shoot at laser at the pooch.

Is your furry companion suffering from back pain? PewPewPew. Have you notice Rex pawing at his ear? Clear up that infection by shining some lasers down that canine canal like a flashlight in a storm drain you dropped your keys into. Gingivitis? Blast those gums with gamma rays. Hot spots and open wounds? You know what to do. Arthritis and hip dysplasia? Spark those joints with some hot-ass beams of light. Degenerative disc disease? Apparently, laser therapy will also help, which is surprising.

Do dogs get acne? Because there’s a laser for that, too. Imagine if teenage me would’ve known? Instead of lancing the glowing ball of puss that stayed on the tip of my nose for the last semester of eighth grade with a safety pin, that ultimately got it infected and left a nice divot in my flesh, I could’ve just shot a fucking laser at it.

Lasers don’t just eliminate zits, they can nuke fat cells. A cold laser stimulates the cells, needling them until they cannot take it and just collapse, giving up their contents like they’ve been shaken down for their lunch money. Plastic surgeons suggest that you do 40-minute sessions, three times a week for two weeks to get the desired results from the procedure. That desired result being the destruction of your cellular makeup.

But where does all of the plaque and coffee stains and gingivitis and arthritis and hip dysplasia and pimples and pain and every trace bit of radiation released from every singular laser go after being zapped or doing the zapping? Do they just disappear? Vaporized like my dad’s prostate? Can you ever make a thing disappear for good? Where do I aim the laser to vaporize my fear and anxiety? Will the disparate particles of my worry ever find each other again? Old friends eager to reunite and get back to what they do best.

***

He tells me it isn’t cancer, just a bout of benign prostatic hyperplasia—something that just happens to people. Then he hits his common refrain of “it’s just one of those things, where yah have to go, whatever.” I can hear his shoulders shrugging through the phone. That whatever has been prescribed for things like the whimpering Albertan economy, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in general, and the continued stresses of work. Things that wear on him like an angle grinder, but he has acquiesced to because “life is cruel and unfair” and sometimes all you can do is sigh when the gravity in your world gets altered. Slamming you into the earth or untethering you from it all together.

That’s another thing lasers can do. Interferometry. The detection in shifts of gravitational waves.

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