What my ICD taught me – Part 1

icdheartI’m propped up in the bed, the window is to my right. My father sits at the foot of my bed, his hand on my leg, patting gently. My mom perched on the bed to my right, squeezing my hand.

Something is wrong.

Why the hell are they both there? Where the hell am I?

I feel woozy.

This is clearly a hospital bed. I’m in hospital. Why the hell am I in hospital?

My father is talking, gently, not his usual rapid chatter, but a gentle consoling voice. “We need to talk. Are you up for talking?”

Something is definitely wrong.

The room is full of flowers. Yellows and reds, dazzling blooms. Cards, magazines, and books stacked on the cabinet. I’ve obviously been here for a while.

I look at my father, and nod. He begins to explain I’ve had a surgery. The doctors have placed an ICD, a special device that will fire if my heart needs to have its rhythm checked, in my chest.

I clutch at my chest, but all that feels tender is under my breast, and my wrists and my throat. Dang, my throat is really sore. And I’m so tired.

“They talked to us about where to place the device. Because you’re slender, and young they’ve put it in your breast. They talked with us both first. You can have a surgery to balance out the other side if you want.”  My father continues. All of a sudden I’m focused. The fog clears from my mind and my first real memory post cardiac arrest is that moment of clarity, “What the fuck! Why would you put a metal box inside the secondary sexual organ of a young woman?”

My father gave me the easy news first, then he told me about the cardiac arrest. The metal contraption in my chest is forgotten in miasma that is knowing I’ve had a cardiac arrest at 27 years old no less.

A month later, I finally leave the inpatient rehabilitation unit. I start participating in a daily cardiac rehabilitation exercise program at the hospital, and I begin to understand why the surgeon put the device underneath the layer of breast tissue.

I am, by far, the youngest in the program.  The sixty and seventy-year-olds are whipping past me on the treadmills at two and half miles per hour while I slug away at one mile per hour. It’s a long way from the nine-minute jog I was taking when I went down.

A couple of the old guys, John, a former war reporter and Bob, an old navy guy, take me under their wing. They show me their ICDs, large odd-shaped masses, straining at the skin  just below their collar bones. I decline to return the favor for fear that a flash of my breast might cause their devices to fire.

Over the next six months, Bob and John cajole me, taunt me and cheer for me as I slowly speed up and begin to jog again. Their friendship isn’t the pity of my peers who don’t quite know what to say. This is the comradery of survival.

I don’t have the ‘other side balanced out’. My ICD becomes a built-in screening to assess any dates. Before they get to second base, I have to talk to them about my heart. They can’t kop a feel without me being willing to talk to them, and if I ain’t willing to do that, it goes no further. The ICD becomes my filter. In time, my condition – the ultimate test of love and commitment.

John died in ’99, Bob not long after. I hadn’t met my husband to be at that time, but funnily enough he shares with them that ability to cajole, to occasionally taunt, but mostly to cheer me on. I think they’d like each other. I do flash him and he does get to kop a feel of the ICD.

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