I’m lying in bed looking up at my funky light fixture with the sun streaming through the crack in my black out curtains and I’m trying to breathe. I can’t seem to expand my torso. I can only inhale for 2 seconds and it gets cut. I have to get up, I’m going to be late.
In the bathroom, getting ready is the first time I noticed I was crying. I’m trying to rinse my face and I notice my hands are shaking. So annoying! I’m going to be late! “Get it together Laura. People think I’m strong. I need to be strong. You can’t disappoint them”! These thoughts just make me cry more. “I have to do this. I have to go so I can stay alive”. I put my fear aside for just a moment and finally rinse my face. Practice a smile in the mirror because I know my sister might see me when I leave the bathroom. I can’t let anyone see me like this. I am strong.
We’re here. It’s a beautiful sunny winter day. It’s always the most beautiful day on my hardest days. It makes me feel supported. It makes me feel like someone is saying “I got you, you’ll be ok, here is some sunshine”.
The place is covered in hearts. It’s a heart hospital. It’s also Valentine’s Day. I’m glad no one has said anything annoying to me about my heart today and it being Valentine’s Day. “Getting your heart checked on heart day”! This is something I see other heart veterans say online. I’m glad it makes them happy. It doesn’t work for me. I just want to be a normal kid. I just want to go home.
They’ve changed everything in 18 years. It’s even changed in 6 months. I don’t recognize it. I find this hard. I feel like I can never go back to the places I used to feel comfortable in this place. I feel like I will never be able to heal. At least some of the people are the same. They’re nice. I’m being nice back. I feel proud of this moment. I realize I’m smiling. I can do this.
I’m not late. In my mind I’m on time. They want you to be 15 minutes early. I don’t understand why. They make you wait anyway. Do they not understand what it took me to get here? I’m giving them so much today, they don’t get the extra 15 minutes from me. I’m 32 though, I need to grow up, don’t I? I need to get it together. I need to be an adult. But every time I come here, I become the 13-year-old girl, physically shaking, wanting to go home. Never wanting to come back.
My dad is with me. He drove and we came in my car. I love my car. I love what I accomplished to get it. I have to do 5 tests today. I’ll be out of here by 2. Then there’s all day breakfast. All day breakfast and a beautiful sunny day. The first one is at 8:30. It’s 8:53 and I’m still waiting. That’s ok. The next one is at 11:30 and the other 3 are walk-in style. I’ll do them in between. I’ll be out of here by 2. The hardest one is last. It’s the most painful. And then I will get to eat. I’m going to get pancakes and coffee. Can’t think about food now. I’m fasting. I’m starving. I’m still trying not to cry. I’m still strong…right?
I heard my name on the speaker. I’m in the wrong place. Why do they have to change everything? The volunteer tells me where to go. The basement. That’s where the ICU was. I spent some time there. The elevators doors open on “S” and there’s a gentleman waiting for me with a smile. A smile! But I’m late. I don’t deserve a smile. He’s so nice.
“When was the surgery?” he asked as he got ready for the echo test. “2001”. “Two thousaaaand one?” He was trying to make sure he heard me right. “Yeah” I smile. He seems impressed. I’m neat. I impress people. It’s because I’m strong. Today’s going to be ok. “I was still in China in 2001”. “Oh yeah”? I like stories. “I was a cardiologist there”. “That’s awesome” I think to myself. I’ve known this guy for 3 minutes and I like him. I would let him be my doctor. “In China, I saw many young people like you. They didn’t survive”. “Oh wow”. Holy shit, I’ve been working so hard and now this is going to make me cry. That’s awful. “I’m pretty lucky” I say it before he can. But, for some reason I don’t think he would have said it. He’s too nice. I’d still let him be my doctor. With a big smile, he said “yes”. Now I’m really trying not to cry. I can’t mess up the test.
The cold gel touches my skin and I leave the room. In my head it’s over 18 years ago and I’m standing in front of my friend Matthew. He’s 7 years older. He’s got the biggest smile, he’s with his mom just like me, and waiting for a new heart, just like me. “Don’t worry” he said “echos are easy! You just gotta lie there! You can even take a nap”! he said always smiling. “Yeah but you don’t have boobs” I obviously don’t say this out loud. I never said anything. I can’t wait to see him again. He’s the first person I want to talk to in heaven.
Another waiting room. Another numbered ticket to show I’m in line. This test is walk-in. Wow they already called me. I sit in the chair and answer all the questions that are clearly about the coronavirus. Leah walks in. “Leah!” I think in my head. She looks at me. She knows it’s me and I know it’s her. We smile at each other. Big knowing smiles. “Julie!” she says, talking to the phlebotomist. “How are ya feeling today? Feeling good? Feeling like you can poke me properly”? She had grabbed a numbered ticket for herself. lol she’s trying to make me smile like she did over 18 years ago when she was my nurse. It works. If I had known laughing could make blood tests completely painless, I would have still not have been able to ever do it before today. Thank you, Leah. Maybe I’m finally healing. Maybe it’ll get better. But I haven’t done the hard test yet. We’ll see.
ECG and chest X-ray done. They’re some of the easiest if you’re ok with being half naked and touched all over. I’m not ok with it. They try to be respectful, but the test doesn’t really allow for it. I appreciate their attempts. “2001! That was a long time ago”! “Yeah” I say as kindly as possible. I don’t want to seem mean. I want to seem grateful because I am. I’m ok. Today is just hard. “And everything is good”? “Yeah” I nod and can actually smile for this one. I’m the one that gets to walk out. I get to be ok. I get to eat pancakes with my dad. I breathe as normally as possible. I don’t want to mess up the tests. These are the easy ones. It’s only 10:30. I have to wait an hour to start the period of waiting that they make you do even though your test is scheduled. I’m drained, hungry, allowing myself to be comforted by my future pancakes but trying not to think about them because I’m so hungry. It’ll be here before I know it.
I just spotted a young guy here. His name was just called. His face looks the way I imagine my face has looked when I’m here. His name is Juan. I wonder if Juan knows he’s going to be ok. I don’t think he does. He should know. Someone should tell him. I really want to tell him he’s going to be ok, but he’s already disappeared through the doors.
They take me early. It’s 10:55. “Hi Laura my name is Carl, how are you?” Seriously? What a stupid question. “Good! You?” I’m lying. I’m scared. This one is the painful one. It makes me feel like my hearts going to explode. It makes me feel like I’m going to die; the thing I have fought the hardest against in my life.
We sit down and go through the questions. There’re many things I’m not allowed before the test. Caffeine is big because it’s the antidote. That’s what they call it. The “antidote”. They’re going to hurt me, and if I’m good, I get the antidote, so I can feel better. Carl asks me if I’ve smoked and I say no. “Never”? “Never” I respond. “Good girl” he says softly. The feminist inside me is enraged. I feel small again. I don’t react. He has a big needle. He’s going to put in an IV and I’m going to let him because then I will get to go home. I decide he’s going to be the absolute best person that’s ever put in an IV ever. He didn’t disappoint me. Good boy Carl.
I’m in the room now. It’s dark and freezing cold. I’m shivering and I’m not entirely sure if it’s because I’m scared or cold. I get on the table and Azmina hooks me up. Azmina is no bullshit. She’s my favourite one yet. It’s like she knows. She knows her speed is helping. She knows I need another hot blanket without saying it. She knows that extra moment when she had her hand in mine made a difference.
I’m lying there and suddenly the Beatles come on. I didn’t even know they were playing music until now. “I want to hold your haaaaand, I want to hold your hand”. “Ok”! I almost said it out loud. I noticed my hands. One was closed tightly and one was open just enough. It was as if someone was already holding it. There was. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there. I wonder if he ever had to do this test. I think it’s too new. I’ll ask him when I see him in heaven. It’ll have to wait.
“Are you ok”? “Yeah”! I have tears rolling into my ears. It’s driving me crazy. It tickles so much. I almost laugh but I’m trying so hard not to move. I had noticed the tears. It’s not a big deal. I’m ok. The pain hasn’t started yet. “Ok Laura, I’m going to start the injection.” It’s my friend Carl again. We’re cool now. “Ok”! It’s so loud in here. I don’t know if they can hear me. I’m trying to show them I’m ok with my voice since the tears may be throwing them off. I wonder what they would do if I said I wasn’t ok. I’d probably have to stay longer. So, I need to be ok and I need to not move.
“Laura I’m going to give you the antidote in one minute. Are you ok”? “Yeah” I’m ok Carl. My heart is racing, my cheeks are on fire, my muscles are aching, I’m running a marathon without even moving. It’s a medical stress test. I hate it. I feel pain flood into the back of my head.
“Here it comes!” ok I’m ready. I’m so ready. Go for it. “Last injection!” the antidote. It’s so weird. All the pain washes away. I can feel the heat fall away from my cheeks, my muscles relax, my breathing slows. I feel almost normal. The headache remains. It’s ok. The coffee I’m getting with my pancakes is more antidote.
I did it! I’m so ready to leave. I almost forget that I need the IV removed. Weird, that’s never happened before. It takes me awhile to change into my clothes. I just ran a marathon. I’m somewhat lightheaded. I get the IV removed and Carl shows me a short cut out. That’s nice. It’s like he knows. he can’t do much, but he can get me out of here a little faster and he does.
It did it again. I made it out again. I don’t have to do this for another year. The hardest part of my year is behind me. I’m so excited because I haven’t been myself for a month. I’m so excited to get reacquainted with myself. I’m so excited for others to get to see me again. I’m so excited for these pancakes. They are delicious.