News

A Highly Irregular Story

I blame Ronald Reagan for many things, but most of all I blame him for his polyp.

I remember his polyp almost as clearly as I remember his face. And during the polyp's heyday, I saw nearly as many likenesses of it: It stared out at me, puffy and pink, from the pages of formerly prissy news weeklies. I learned too much about its changing fortunes as it was first discovered, then tormented, and finally evicted from its warm home in Reagan's suddenly public rope of lower intestine.

During those media-saturated days, I found myself wondering aloud about the polyp while it was still cushioned darkly among the remains of an old man's dinner. I found that I was actually visualizing its surroundings. I believe this was a common experience among Americans, and that it changed our world. Later, Ron and Nancy tried to re-establish a tradition of delicacy--maybe that was the thing behind their reluctance to grapple with the AIDS plague--but it was no good. Once the news media's scatological curiosity was aroused, reporters began burrowing as furiously as oil derricks for stories about the body's most unattractive tendencies. And the public, deadened by too many sketches of the polyp, merely nodded numbly as it was buffeted by subsequent news of condoms, foiled ovulation and anal linings ruptured by intercourse.

Only one area of hitherto private human endeavor was left relatively alone. But with the advent of YETSS, even that has been ripped from us.

YETSS, for Young Executive Tight Sphincter Syndrome, is the coinage of Fort Lauderdale doctor Steven Wexner, who researches and treats constipation. For years he has been toiling quietly in the area of his fascination, but a couple of weeks ago he went national: Word of YETSS was trumpeted across the country by John Platero, an enterprising career reporter for the Associated Press.

According to the sizable article, YETSS is most common among Type A personalities, ages 25 to 55, who are such busy professionals that they can't take a few minutes to relax on the throne.

I have never personally known anyone this busy, but Wexner was authoritative in his insistence that they are speckled across this great country of ours, and that they are miserable in the bottom portion of their persons.

The story read in small part, "Repeated straining against a tight anal sphincter (muscle) causes delicate skin to crack and bleed . . . creating what is called a fissure. . . . The cure for YETSS . . . is minor surgery on an outpatient basis. A small cut is made to relax the sphincter and ease bowel movement."

This story was picked up far and wide. And as constipation made headlines, newsgathering reached an unsettling zenith and the last shreds of a sacred privilege vanished forever from American life: There is no longer a way for anyone to suffer privately.

Think about this the next time you're panting and pushing. If you emerge from the bathroom the slightest bit recalcitrant or pained or otherwise symptomatic of trauma, everyone near you with the wits to read a paper is going to know what went on in there.

A news story with these kinds of repercussions should not pass unnoticed. As a commemoration, we should know everything that went on behind-the- scenes in the effort that changed our lives. So I phoned Miami and reached Platero, who has been an AP reporter for 32 years in more than 18 offices, some of them in Latin America. (He was bureau chief in Sao Paulo.) And I asked him to describe for me, from the moment when the idea first began to sidle into his brain, how his story evolved.

"It was a challenge," he said. "It took a lot of arguing. We had one news editor who every time I mentioned it, he would cringe, he would go, `Ooh.'"

Platero stood firm. He is a total newsman. Once he had read about YETSS in a news release from Dr. Wexner's clinic, he was filled with zeal for informing the public. "I look for that which is different, and I find that most journalists pass by things and never see them," he told me.

He did not admit that "passing by" constipation as a literary topic would be considered only polite by a lot of people's mothers. He did, however, explain why it was important for the phenomenon to come out of the water closet. It is because it affects everyone, from the most admired to the not-so-great. He informed me, "You will find that a lot of people say, `God, I'm constipated.' When Elvis Presley died, he died on the john, straining. He fell over.

"For years my warden--my editor--for years she has been taking pills that allow her regularity.

"My oldest son had it as a child. He would not relax, he was too anxious to go out and play, and he would hold it in and then finally fill up and force himself to go. And when he was eight or nine he had a serious problem and we had to take him to a doctor. He was impacted, that's the word."

This last comment provides great insight into Platero's tenacity. A reporter will often fight harder for a story when he has a personal interest in the issue.

Although Platero pointed out that his interest isn't so personal that he's prejudiced. He himself is not a YETSS sufferer. "I get to work at 2:30, so I'm [at home] from 9 to 1:00," he revealed. "I have plenty of time [on the john]. I have time to read the New York Times and a novel."

Happily, this allowed him to write a balanced story.
I read aloud to Platero the sentence from his news article that I admire most extravagantly: "Normal bowel movements range from three times a day to three times a week." I have been able to visualize Platero querying of Wexner in his most professional manner, "Doctor, can you give me an idea of the range?" This is one of every reporter's bevy of basic questions, but I've never before seen it used to cull such an eye-riveting detail.

"When the doctor said that, I said, `You're kidding, you really mean that?'" By now Platero was reminiscing fondly, the way old newsmen do about that one story they will never forget. "Then you start thinking and you start counting yourself." In addition to counting his waste products, Platero is also counting phone calls these days. That's one way he knows this was an important story: He can observe the effects of his influence as they return to him like the tide. As readers have phoned for Dr. Wexner's number, he has given it to them quietly, he said with some satisfaction. He told me, "I didn't want to pry.

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Deborah Laake