Two minutes of tingling fingertips and a slightly tightened chest landed me on the cardiac pain floor of a large nationally ranked hospital.
“For tests,” they said.
I had not felt dizzy, never feared fainting, definitely had not experienced pain. But an emergency room doctor who didn’t listen wrote “acute chest pain” on my chart and insisted on admission.
At first I balked. “No, I am not going to this hospital.” After the doctor said something I didn’t quite catch about “You Type A’s,” and threatened dire consequences for refusing medical advice, I gave up.
If he had asked, “Why not?” or “What’s the problem?” I might have explained.
Twelve years ago, my husband came to this hospital for tests. He died here four months later—after multiple surgeries, procedures, doctors, and too many emergencies. The specialists who treated him did their best, and he always pulled through, until he didn’t. Even experienced doctors were no match for death by a thousand cuts: one thing after another, this-and-that, all the accumulated setbacks. I kept daily records in notebooks that now fill a large box. I thought I would review them, revisit every hour of every day, but I haven’t had the heart for it.
Once admitted, they threaded a needle into a vein in my right arm that connected to a dangling rubber tube ending in a plastic cube, an IV port used for taking blood samples.
The gown the aide offered was patterned with blue geometric shapes, the exact same gowns my husband wore. When I refused it without explaining, she let me choose a different one. I wore sweatpants under it for dignity’s sake and sat on a straight wooden chair instead of lying in the bed.
My husband had lain on a high-tech mattress that breathed, inhaling and exhaling to maintain a firm yet soft cushion. But he never slept well, even with meds. I know because I was there. After realizing that bad things usually happened at night, I slept on a low cot a few feet from his high bed. If need be, he clanged his wedding ring against the metal bed frame to wake me.
I didn’t spend long in that uncomfortable chair and soon boarded a wheeled cart for a trip to radiology. Someone I couldn’t see pushed the cart, so it seemed to propel itself—a personal magic carpet. I flew through a maze of elevators, hallways, automatic doors, and one three-point turn, despaired of finding a way back to my room.
When we approached radiology, another aide pushed me into a dim, wide corridor lined with three-sided cubicles about the size of a dairy cow’s stall. I refused her offer to turn on the television that hung perilously over my head, and she left. I was grateful for the presence of the silent man in the opposite compartment. When he was taken inside, I lay alone in the dark stall. After a half hour or so, I called into empty space, “Hello? Hello? Hello?”
The aide appeared at my feet.
“Where were you?”
“Just around the corner. I didn’t forget you. We’re very busy today.”
I didn’t believe her. I was the only patient waiting. While I was imagining how to survive the night on the hard cart in the dark stall, help had sat, literally, on the other side of the wall.
Whenever my husband was sent to radiology, I went too, walking beside the cart to distract him from the gauntlet of staring eyes, look-alike hallways, bantering staff in elevators. If there was a long wait, he might doze on the hard cart. If we waited too long, I went to find out why. After they took him inside, I waited until they returned him to me, and we could begin the long walk back to the room.
Somewhere near the end, I went home to shower while he rested. When I returned to his room a few hours later, he was not there. I demanded to know where he was, but no one knew, and I dissolved into panic and outrage—nearly became another patient. They finally tracked down a doctor’s order and found my husband in radiology. The aides had seemingly forgotten about him, left him lying there alone.
Later that day, a small woman with a large loaded cart banged into my room. She was here to conduct something called an “Echo.” It was, she explained, like a sonogram. It would not hurt or take long. I lay on my side, propped against pillows, prepared to see inside myself.
The screen filled with blurred grey lines that suggested half circles. The nurse pointed to a slightly darker shadow inside the curves.
“That is your heart.”
The shadow moved, contracted, expanded, pulsed back and forth, moved slightly from side to side. I caught its rhythm and waited for the shadow to expand again. My heart seemed strong and capable, but I sensed the possibility of weakness and vulnerability. The immensity of my reliance on its mysterious movements swept over me.
I saw the inside of my husband’s trachea on a similar screen. After one of three surgeries, a doctor we didn’t know asked to “have a look.” He wanted to insert a tiny device down my husband’s throat while he lay on his bed with the special mattress. It wouldn’t take long, wouldn’t hurt. I wanted to ask, “Why? Is this necessary?” but my husband unexpectedly agreed.
I sat in a corner where I could watch. I was curious but mostly needed to be there, just in case. The examination took longer and was more uncomfortable, rougher, than promised. We never learned the results of this procedure or the reason for it. I always suspected this specialist had an ulterior motive—indulging his curiosity, playing with a new toy, or adding the result to a research project.
Later that night, around midnight, I finally relaxed, let go enough to fall asleep. All too soon, I was pulled out of sleep by fluorescent lights and a firm hand on my arm.
“Vitals,” a stranger’s voice said. When I complained, an edge to my voice, she murmured, “I’m sorry.” At that, I succumbed to the blood pressure cuff, thermometer, and finger clip. My complaint was childish; she had no choice.
After she left, I felt awake, wide awake—the way you feel after some naps, all ready to go. Yet a needle in my arm, rubber tube against my skin, and weight of the hard cube meant I wasn’t going anywhere soon. I lay tethered, anchored in place.
Tubes drifted from my husband’s body, around, over, and beneath the bed. Two IV ports (right shoulder and left hand), a catheter, a tube connected to a suction device hanging on the wall above the bed, a feeding tube inserted directly into his stomach, and one for oxygen stuck into that sweet spot where his collarbones met.
An aide once pulled on the catheter, jerked it right out. And for about ten days after another surgery, three tubes were embedded in his back to drain fluids from the chest cavity. When one tube began to leak, the resident packed a sanitary napkin around the incision. I remember she and the nurses found it funny, and maybe it was, to them.
During my second night there, I pushed the red call button.
“I can’t sleep, the IV thing is bothering me.”
“I’ll be right there.”
I was glad to see the young nurse I’d met earlier. A new hire, tonight was her first shift on the job. Far from her home in the Philippines, she was also studying for a master’s degree. I took advantage of our brief acquaintance.
“I can’t sleep with the needle poking into my arm. I’d really appreciate it if you would remove it.”
“I can’t do that,” she said. “The port is there in case of an emergency. We might need instant access to your vein.”
The sympathy in her voice only encouraged my persistence.
“But there is no emergency, and there won’t be. I’m only here for tests. I am not sick. I haven’t had a heart attack.” I used my iron voice, as if by force of will I could prevent all emergencies.
She explained, “The first thing we do when a patient arrives is insert an IV and the last thing we do before discharge is remove it.”
“It hurts every time I move. The tube catches on the pillow, the bedding, my sleeve, and then the needle hurts.”
Something inside me hardened. I became determined to get my way, to become subject instead of object. I continued to ask, to coax, to cajole until she clipped the tape, pulled out the needle, stopped the blood with cotton, and bandaged the puncture.
“You may have a bruise there.”
“It’ll be okay. Thank you.”
She left, and I allowed myself a surge of satisfaction. With a slight twinge of remorse for bullying her, I sank into sleep.
Next morning’s breakfast came with two doctors and good news. They said my heart was fine, there was no sign of a heart issue. “Your heart is top-notch,” they said.
Apparently, no one had noticed the crack. A deep crack in my heart, now twelve years old, still there, beyond repair.