Alone and Gasping

January 30, 2012

The plane slows and skitters unpredictably across the iced runway before settling to a halt. The sky transitions from dark to light grey, plumes of warm air billowing heavily from the jutting stacks around us.

I want to get out of this stretcher. I want to walk but the paramedics stop me. They must think I am so weak I will hurt myself. The ice. I could fall. Paperwork. They wrap me up and buckle my arms in. I imagine this is what wearing a strait-jacket feels like. Protected from myself. I can only turn my head from side to side as they unfold the ramp to roll me off of the plane.

They slide me out of the plane and into the waiting ambulance like a delicate egg. I’m locked into place there. It’s very sanitary. The medical supplies in the cabinets next to me clatter alarmingly as we drive to the hospital. There is no rush. No wailing siren. The driver mutters something about the state of the roads and it strikes me as fantastically unimportant. I look out the dirty back windows at the blur of cars in the street, regular people commuting early to work to beat the traffic. What is important? The young paramedic from the plane hovers over me still and writes notes in his little tin.

I rattle out of the ambulance at the emergency entrance and they wheel me in. I recognize these walls. I remember this lighting. Hospital lights. Beige walls. The hospital is sleepy and quiet. It’s early. It’s the holidays. I stare at everything, attempting to set it to memory. Record and digest. The pastel paintings in the hallways. The bronze plaque on a doorway commemorating the room to a generous and unknown elderly couple. Another on the MRI lab door lauding a faceless financial group. The one dazed woman sitting with an unread magazine in her lap, a television screen flickering brightly on the wall, her eyes gleaming with over-saturated colours. The rows of fluorescent squares racing away down the hallway ceiling, always ending at double doors. My head hurts. I’m tired. My eyes sting but I keep looking. Quaint notices pinned on boards. “Wash your hands.” “Use disinfectant.” “Merry Christmas!”

The final set of double doors and I can see into the room beyond. I see a familiar face looking back at me through the windows. I’ve only seen her in video conferences, but it doesn’t make any difference. She has the poise of a professional and I know I’ve been a lot of work for her. She’s watching as I’m wheeled down the hallway. Other heads turn to watch me, gazes focusing on me for a moment, assessing me. She quirks a small smile. It warms me to see someone I recognize and I try to smile back but I don’t think I manage it. The doors part mysteriously before me and I’m wheeled inside, and beyond before anyone says a word, into a room where the paramedics slide me over into a waiting bed. They wish me luck, shaking my hand, and immediately hustle out, closing the door behind them.

There is a  nurse in the room and she turns to me, introducing herself with a French accent. She makes sure I am actually who I am supposed to be. I am. The door to the room slides open, letting through a swath of the noise outside before it clamps off again. A doctor comes in, French again, and he starts telling me what he’s going to do. He’s going to place some things in my body that they will use during the operation. An IV here, a central line here. The nurse hands me a clipboard and I sign myself away. And another IV on the other side. She says I already know what I’m getting into. The doctor checks my pulse and my heart-rate. I ask to go to the bathroom. The nurse tells me to go quickly. I return to the doctor putting on white gloves, laying out his tools on a glinting stainless-steel trolley.

The nurse tells me to strip. Strip everything. I hesitate and realise that my body is not my own anymore. That this will not be the most humiliating thing to happen to me. That to be in the hospital is to let go of your privacy and your modesty. That they are mere figments anyways. I take off all my clothes and feel more naked than naked. I feel so skinny, like anyone can see right through me. My penis feels tiny. The symbolism doesn’t escape me. I shiver. I’m cold.

I lie back down in the bed and feel a bit better when the nurse pulls the sheets up over me. I turn my head at the doctor’s request. He slathers hot pink iodine onto my chest and neck. The iodine is intensely cold. I usually like hot pink because it’s still mildly inappropriate on men. The acrid stinging burn of the iodine overwhelms my nostrils. My flesh tingles angrily. The linen of the pillow feels rough against my ear. Another nurse comes in to rub the nail-polish off of my fingernails to get a better read from the pulse oximeter. I had put the polish on for a party a week or two before. Seems like another lifetime. I had no idea this would happen and I feel embarrassed that someone has to do this for me. Like my whim forced someone else to this trivial task. Selfish. I feel a vicious stabbing pain in my upper chest. The doctor has been telling me that I would feel it. He’s anesthetizing the place where he’s going to insert a tube into my artery. I feel a rush of scalding-hot blood pour over my shoulder and onto the pillow beneath me. I wince and worry, but he seems unconcerned. The door keeps sliding open and shut, a staccato of noisy rushing as people enter and leave, peek in, write notes, and prepare.

Suddenly, after what seems like an eternity, it’s done. The crowd dwindles until I’m left with the nurse and the steady sound of the infusion pumps squeezing fluids and pharmaceuticals into my bloodstream. I am prepped. I am almost there. There is a disconcertingly large plasmapheresis machine pumping blood out of me and scrubbing it free of antibodies, replacing my plasma with donor plasma. The plasma bags are lined up, numbered, and neatly accounted-for on a nearby table. They are various shades of yellowish-white, not red, so the fact that they contain blood doesn’t even register mentally.

When they wheel me out to surgery, I feel sedated. I must actually be sedated. My thoughts are fuzzy and without edges. I cannot grasp them. They flee and flutter about. My eyes dart about nervously and all I can see is those fluorescent squares in the ceiling rushing past above me. I don’t see anyone. I’m alone and free-falling. The noise of rolling wheels on the floor transitions into a buzzing rush in my ears. I struggle to stay conscious but it’s becoming darker. The lights are dimming. I’m panicking. I can’t move. I’m stuck. I’m alone. Help me, somebody. Help.

I explode into a million fragments. My body disappears. My thoughts and emotions and essence disperse into the fine framework of the universe. I am no more.

Tomorrow, in the Dark

January 26, 2012

My suitcase rolls with a cheap plastic clatter across the rough pavement towards the tiny building they call an airport. The asphalt is damp and shiny, reflecting the empty, well-lit interior.

I look up at the entryway, at the tall dark-haired man standing out front. “Hello.”

“Hello,” he responded flatly, stopping to breathe in deeply from his cigarette. He does not offer more.

I’m confused. I expected more. Actually, I don’t know what I was expecting. But the sliding doors soon scurry open and a young guy steps out, expecting me. Short hair, kind face, maybe stoned. The paramedic.

“Hey,” he says in a Maritime drawl, “You’re Chris?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, welcome,” he grins. He ushers me inside.

Clatter, clatter. I set my case down next to four smooth, new leather chairs. He takes one and I take the one next to him. He flips open a battered metal tin, and starts writing on papers within, asking me questions. Lots of questions. He asks about everything, my entire medical history from 14 years ago until now and I try to answer as well as I can. My mind is still racing. My fear lies vast and incomprehensible in the back of my mind, encapsulated by emotional necessity, and I find myself suffused with anxiety and impatience and an overwhelming urge to just run away from here and forget all about this. I can’t focus on the questions and I just dump words into the air like chaff. I want to go. I still don’t know what is going on. When do we leave? All my thoughts are on this last question.

The doors slide open and shut behind me. The dark-haired guy at the doorway has finished his cigarette and he starts talking to the paramedic. He’s the pilot. Someone else joins in. The co-pilot. We’re leaving in an hour. It’s been an hour since I got the phone-call. They told me to get to this address as soon as possible. I stuffed some clothes in my suitcase and sat there, drawing a blank at what else to bring. What do you carry with you to the end and beginning of your life? What do you pack when tomorrow is going to be completely separated and alienated from today?

He finishes asking questions and talks on the phone with the admitting nurse in Ottawa for a long time, making arrangements. I stare absently at the large-screen television mounted on the wall. It’s -4 degrees outside. The temperature is dropping. Colder tomorrow. I might not make it to tomorrow. There is a private phone room in the corner. I’ve never actually seen one in person before. The clock ticks with excruciating slowness past 12:30 AM.

Suddenly, we’re leaving. We walk out across the tarmac. My suitcase has already vanished, magically, like luggage seems to do in airports. The plane is tiny yet looms larger and larger until we walk around it, stepping up the ladder into the interior. There is a stretcher inside, and feeling vaguely self-conscious, I lie down on it. I just walked in here on my own legs. There is a belt digging into my back which I ignore. The pilots step by, hunched over in the confines of the plane to get up into the cockpit. They speak quietly to each other and flop into their seats, clicking things on. The plane is freezing but they assure me it will heat up soon enough.

Intravenous. Blood-pressure cuff. O2 monitor. I’m hooked in now. I’m in the system. Patient 0-0114-21203. A face in a bed; status described in numbers and readouts.

I take a deep breath and we taxi onto the runway. With a rushing whine and the unbelievably loud sound of propellers, we are up in the air. The city lies dark and dormant outside. Droplets of water on the window refract the glow of lights at the station before we climb further into darkness. I can’t see a thing. I am away.

Zero Day

January 25, 2012

The phone rings. It’s late. It’s eleven at night.

I pick it up, 613, Ottawa area code. Ottawa area code.

My fingers fumble at my phone and I answer. “Hello?”

“Good evening, is this Christopher?” A voice says, someone black, sounding faint and distant.

I hurriedly respond, “This is Chris…”

“My name is Bernadette from the Ottawa Heart Institute.” She pauses, letting this sink in for me. She continues, slowly, “We have a heart available for you here, and are hoping to be able to transplant you as soon as possible.”

My mind flashes blank and I can feel myself tensing, ratcheting up, wondering, thoughts suddenly exploding in a million directions at once. Heart available? Hoping to be able to transplant? Hoping? Hoping? Right now? I’m not ready. How can I not be ready? I’ve been waiting two years for this. I don’t feel ready. What is going to happen? Someone flew down twice only to have his surgery cancelled both times. Is that going to happen to me? Please don’t let that happen to me. Hoping? I could die. I could be left worse-off than before. I don’t want to be an invalid. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die.

“Y-yes…” I respond awkwardly, unsure of what to say.

“We are arranging to have Air Ambulance pick you up in Winnipeg to bring you to Ottawa.” She states.

I finally snap out of it and get a vague grip on myself, “Yes, okay. Where do I have to go?”

She tells me to wait for a call from Air Ambulance. I dazedly murmur thanks and hang up.

I stand by the window, feeling the coldness seeping through the glass and into my body. Streetlights blink yellow and vapid beyond the empty parking lot nestled behind an abandoned Chinese storefront. A rickety truck meanders across the intersection in the distance. All the buildings seem abandoned or condemned and the bright orange glare of street lights lend the scattering of dirty snow on the streets a sinister hue.

I glance around my apartment and it just falls away. Nothing here matters anymore. Not right now. Not in the foreseeable future.

I can’t help myself when the tears come. I don’t know what emotion it is that overwhelms me, but it feels like all of them. Joy, fear, disbelief, confusion, relief, dread, horror, excitedness, uncertainty, nausea. I have never felt so scared in my life and I’m on my knees, crying.