By Mark vonAppen
I wake up to a spunky gal standing at the foot of my hospital gurney in bright blue scrubs and a skull and crossed bones bandana.
She says my name.
I stir from my fog. Sleepy from medication and an irregular heart rate of 61 to 190. I say, “That’s me.”
In a voice that is entirely too chipper for me, she bubbles, “I’ll be your anesthesiologist. You’re scheduled for a cardioversion, right?”
I think, she’s awfully plucky.
Plucky it is.
“When’s that?” I ask absent-mindedly.
She draws back the curtain, looking at the clock on the wall she says, “Hmm, in eight minutes.”
My mental brakes seize.
Eight minutes? My mind swirls, my body tangled in wires, I sit bolt upright. They said they were going to do this, but they didn’t say exactly when they were going to do it.
I’m not ready yet. I have a lot left to do.
When someone tells you that they’re going to put you to sleep and momentarily stop your heart by shocking the shit out of it and then restart it in eight minutes, there is a sense finality associated with it. My lack of any control of the situation is as palpable as the dysrythmic liquid slamming of my broken heart.
My phone is almost dead, “Can I call my wife before you stop my heart and jump start it again?”
I need a phone charger.
Plucky opens her fishing tackle box of night-night drugs on a table next to me. “I’m going to be giving you propofol.”
Isn’t propofol the same stuff Michael Jackson’s doctor overdosed him with? Michael Jackson took the big sleep on that stuff. I hope I wake up.
I hope you’re good at math Plucky.
15% battery life…
The blood pressure cuff squeezes my arm.
A nurse horses in a defribillator. I sit in detached wonder as she places a patch on my chest and another on my back. Is this really happening? A guy in scrubs walks in, “Is your blood pressure usually this high?” I reply, “No, but then it isn’t every day that somebody says, ‘We’re gonna stop your heart for a second and then restart it by shocking it. It usually works.'”
So there’s your answer.
My fingers stumble across the keypad of my phone, dialing my wife’s number. Please answer. What if this is the last time I talk to her? What do I say? The kids are at school, will I see them again? She answers, I try to explain what the doctors have planned for me.
The cardiologist walks in holding a cup of coffee, his medical student in tow. The student is listening too eagerly for my liking.
My wife doesn’t want to understand what I am saying so I try to explain again.
Please don’t cry.
It’s not working.
I hand the phone to the cardiologist so he can explain in cool doctor-speak.
My battery is going to die.
This should work; right? What could possibly go wrong?
My car is such a mess, how embarrassing. Everything that I worked so hard to achieve, nothing matters except what happens right now.
A moment has never seemed so real.
Plucky cleans the IV port in my arm.
My son has a football game today. I wonder if I’ll get to see it. My daughter sleeps with her soccer ball.
I take a deep breath and savor it. Be here now. Everything before and after is just a story.
A clipboard and pen are thrust in my face by another doctor who is trying not to spill his coffee as he parts the crowd around me. “This says that you consent to the procedure. I need you to sign in a few places.” Turning the page, “This one says that you understand the risk of the procedure, including death.”
I sign the pages. I sign all control of my life away.
More nurses and doctors walk in and surround my bed. As a rule, eye contact is avoided, but when it is made I get the requisite look of sympathy.
The heart monitor beeps erratically, and the blood pressure cuff squeezes tight again.
None of these people know me. I could die in the company of complete strangers as the one person who cares most about me is driving in a panic to get here. If I do die, I know how it will go, “It was such a bummer. We had a 42 year-old male who died today when we attempted a cardioversion. Sucks for him.”
I’m just a 42 year-old male. I’m a problem. Every doctor that walks in the room sees me as a 42 year-old male with an acute medical problem. I’m a statistic. I have no name or personality.
The doctor hands me the phone. He hung up with my wife.
I didn’t get to say goodbye.
This wasn’t long enough.
I wanted to say goodbye.
“His blood pressure and heart rate are going up,” a disembodied voice says. “We need to get this thing going.”
Plucky asks, “Are you doing okay?”
The cracking of my voice betrays me. I croak, “Yeah.”
Keep it together.
A nurse lays me flat. The light above me is entirely too bright.
Plucky says, “We’re going to give you some oxygen.”
I hold the mask to my face.
I say, “Why do they give you oxygen when your plane is about to crash? Because oxygen gets you high,” and chuckle at my contrarianism.
Nobody gets the reference. As usual, my brilliant sense of humor is evident only to me.
I breathe deeply from the oxygen mask. What if I wake up and I’m somewhere else. What if I’m nowhere at all?
Be here now. Everything before and after is just a story.
The kids were asleep when I left this morning. What was the last thing I said to them?
What will I be remembered for? What did I accomplish?
Have I been a good father?
This can’t happen to me.
Everybody that this happens to thinks it can’t happen to them. Then it happens to them. So much for immortality.
I am always in control. I fix things.
Everything is fine.
Plucky says, “The propofol is going to make your arm burn a little when I give it to you.”
“What time is it?” I ask.
It’s time to go to sleep. I hope it’s not the big sleep.
The syringe enters the port.
What if I wake up to nothing?
I don’t feel anything except regret.
I take a deep breath and savor it.
I say to no one in particular, “My arm is starting to burn…”