A steady stream of doctors filed in, all asking the same questions. “On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rank your chest pain?” Ten, “Has this ever happened before?” No, “What were you doing when the chest pain began?” Standing still. But, they were kind, smiled reassuringly, took her pulse, and looked deeply in to her eyes. Something about them made you feel comfortable. There was an air of knowledge, not in a smug, superior way, but in a way that seemed almost omnipotent, a “we know you are suffering, and are here to help” way.
When they left my wife would say, “I’m just crazy, they’re going to say, ‘you’re just crazy.’” Fear does strange things. Even to woman who is so strong, so caring. For years she has been my rock, my port in the storm, all of those storms, my light house through all the insecurity, all of the times I was so lost that it seemed impossible, and she would talk me back from the edge. How do you help someone cope with that kind of fear? What do you tell a person who was worried they were dying, then worried they were going crazy, when they have spent the last twenty seven years convincing you of your sanity?
All I could say was “No, you needed to come here. You need to be here.” I squeezed her hand, the hand that wasn’t wired.
I didn’t say, I’m the crazy one, you don’t get that job, we can’t both be the crazy one. Who will make the grocery list, who will clip the coupons and celebrate the savings, who will come home and tell me excitedly about her day, and her “kids” all of the students, parading past her desk, every day, smiling, happy to see her. Who will stop to pick up the pennies, and take the time to turn them over to “heads” because I said that was the key to good luck?
Eventually, after reading her EKG, and the abnormal lines tracking across the page, and asking, repeatedly about her family history they decided the symptoms, two cardiologists and a “hospitalist” decided, she was not crazy, there was something in the lines they didn’t like. They scheduled a stress test for the next morning.
A very kind, compassionate nurse, who kept calling her “girl friend” (he called everybody girlfriend), other patients, nurses, probably not the doctors, though), got her a sandwich, some soup, and some water. She told me, later, that it could have used some salt, she likes salt. How do you say “it had plenty of salt, you use too much salt,” to a woman who walks past the elevator every day to take the stairs, a woman who is so faithful to taking her medicine, a woman who does so many healthy things? You don’t, you just add a little less salt when cooking, and let her think she is living on the edge.
Her stress test was the next morning, “I will be here, with your tennis shoes, by 7:00,” I promised, at 6:15 I was having coffee, by myself at the nurse’s station. Finally, brave enough, I ventured back to the little room, and she was watching television, by herself, in that big building, with all of those people, walking, riding, pushing carts, she was all alone, and in a way it made her comfortable, somehow she could carve out some quiet time to watch the morning news. She was not allowed any food, nothing except water until after the test.
At 9:00 they loaded her into a wheel chair, and took her away. When she came back the nurse said she could not have any food until the doctor approved. When the cardiologists came in they told her the results were irregular. Her "ejection fraction" was abnormal. Not dramatically bad, but bad enough, combined with the chest pains, the odd nature of the lines on the EKG, and her family history they felt a heart catheterization was necessary, and they could fit her in that afternoon. Blood thinners, some other medicine for blood pressure, and some aspirin, a whole handful of aspirin, but she could have no lunch, and certainly no diet Coke. She did not complain, not even to me after they left, not even a little. She laughed, joked about losing weight, and smiled at me. “It will be ok, I will be fine,” she said.
We sat, and waited, talking quietly between doctor visits, between checks on her vital statistics. Her blood pressure, pulse, respiration were monitored so closely, obsessively. It seemed ominous, dark, menacing. Doctors, kind, patient, smiling, stopped, took her pulse. Then came the bad bits, the warnings.
While explaining the catheterization procedure, which sounded awful, they had to take the precaution of explaining the risks. “As with any procedure, there is a small risk of death.” They said it so often it began to echo up and down the long, lonely hallways. I must have heard it repeated a thousand times, always with the same quiet dispassion, the same matter of fact indifference. “You could have kidney damage, a stroke, a heart attack, and there is always the possibility of death, always the case with a medical procedure." It hardly ever happens, but it might. You could be the lucky one, the big winner.
I wanted to scream, “why, if it is so unlikely, do you keep bringing it up? If she dies, and I complain you can say ‘well, we told you that might happen. You were warned, I don’t know what you are going on and on about.’” I wanted to grab her, throw her over my shoulder and run out the door, but I had no idea where the door was, and she seemed much more comfortable than I. She knew they had to say that. I knew that too, but did they have to keep saying it. It seemed everybody who walked past her little curtain tossed it out.
“Would you like some more water? It might be your last.”
It must have shown on my face, because when they took her away to have her catheterization she looked at me in a way that I had seen a hundred times, a way that said “you worry too much, you let things bother you too much. There are happy endings.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be ok.” I told her, I tried to make it sound like a joke, but not really sure how well I pulled that off. She squeezed my hand.
“I know, and so will I.” she said.
In what had to be the longest forty five minutes of my life I waited, and wandered, I typed out an 800 word blog post, on my phone, my thumbs were flying, my mind was occupied, and it was better than staring at the clock, alone with my thoughts. Eventually, they took me to a small room where a doctor told me she was through, no stints, some plaque buildup, but nothing alarming. I would be taken back to see her when she was ready.
I have never seen a more beautiful sight. My wife trying to eat apple sauce using only her left hand, I wanted to laugh, and I wanted to cry, but I just smiled, and kissed her on the top of her head. Then I fed her the rest of the apple sauce. She wanted to cry because she had food, and Diet Coke.
They let her go home at 9:00 that night. On the way home she said, “I’m sorry for putting you through all of this.”
“You look fantastic,” I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t know how to say anything else. I was so relieved words got lost looking for the way out. I smiled and patted her hand, and drove her home. Two days can be an eternity.
Because of her problems, indefinable though they were, they told her to see a preventative care cardiologist, and she will, she has a new prescription, and she is faithful about taking it every day. The story is not over, I like to think it is only beginning.