- On Late-Stage Pediatric Cardiomyopathy
Should you find yourself coming to while being wheeled out of your high school calculus class, it is best not to open your eyes. Feign unconsciousness for a few more seconds, until the EMTs have turned the corner out into the hallway. You will get that feeling, not pain but pressure, as if you are in some reverse barometric chamber and the air is breathing on you. Do not make eye contact with your peers in this state. Your guard will be down; someone perceptive might see your future flickering across your dilated pupils.
When you return to school, make jokes about the “episode.” This will put your classmates at ease. They will give you terrible nicknames which they mean to be endearing. Accept these with a smile, internalize them, use them in reference to yourself; they are your only remaining link to your place in the social order that was once so important.
The problem with congestive heart failure is I sometimes forget I have it. I am seventeen, heart failure is a disease for old people, and I forget. I have normal days, breathe easy, walk at an upbeat pace. Then I go and do something stupid and end up back here—bum a cigarette off my friend Benny behind the Dunkin’ Donuts, or chase the bus down Lincoln Street, like death is a problem I could escape if I could just run fast enough.
At Memorial West, people know me. The ambulance driver calls to let them know I’m coming, and the triage nurses high-five me on the way in. A white-hot pain blazes inside my ribcage each time I move my arm, and I try not to flinch. Igor, the janitor, updates me on the scores of the baseball games. He’s Ukrainian and can’t pronounce his W ’s.
“Ey, Ven-dee, your Mets are heartbreakers this week,” he says.
“Leave Wendy alone,” says the woman in the information booth. “She doesn’t need any bad news.”
“That’s why I like them!” I call to Igor as I’m handed off to a new worker who pushes me toward the elevators. But my voice shakes more than usual, and I don’t know if he’s heard me. [End Page 46]
They take me straight to the cardiac wing, where I am approximately forty-six years younger than the average patient. They park my gurney alongside the nurses’ station while they try to find me a room. A student nurse removes my shirt, affixing sticky electrodes in complex patterns up and down my torso, leaving my chest exposed, nipples prickling against the chill, sterile air. There was a point when I was ashamed of lying half-naked in public, but that seems like a long time ago now.
Behind the desk, Alisha is playing her perpetual game of Pac-Man on the computer she’s only supposed to use for patient records. For as many times as I’ve been here, I’ve never seen her pass the fifth level.
“That’s ’cause these old people got me runnin’ my ass all over this damn hospital,” she says when I bring it up. She wags her head in the direction of the patient rooms, as if Pac-Man were her real job, and they were distracting her from it. “Don’t move!” she shushes my laughter. “You’ll mess up your EKG.”
It’s only then I notice the familiar multicolored wires tentacling across my body and up toward the computer cart. I quiet my breathing and wait while the attached printer graphs the tumultuous mountain range of my heartbeat. The student nurse leaves, and Alisha rips the printout along the accordion paper’s perforations. She looks it over, shakes her head again, and calls my doctor over the loudspeaker.
Like being an expert at anything, there are insider tricks for an optimal hospital stay. If you are nice to an orderly, he will give you an extra pillow. If you make the nurses laugh, they will bring you cans of ginger ale and ice chips in Styrofoam cups. If you make friends...