“I think I need to go to the hospital.” I woke up to my boyfriend Phyl shaking my shoulder, his voice urgent. My heart thumped, and I stared at him, nearly uncomprehending.
“Wha…what did you say?”
“Wake up. I’m not joking. We need to go now. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
Logic spoke first. “It can’t be a heart attack,” I said. Heart attacks happened to men in their sixties. He was only forty-three. He had been disabled for going on two years now, and had gone from being a very active man working three jobs to a man who sat in the house all day staring at the four walls around him. The stress of dealing with the financial side of things and coming to terms with his new limitations had been building up. I knew that the inactivity and frustration had taken their toll on his body, and he hadn’t been feeling well for some time. But a heart attack?
He sat down on the edge of the bed, holding his left shoulder with his right hand. He and began rocking back and forth slightly, wincing as he moved. My heart did a double beat as my brain suddenly registered what he said, and I flew out of bed, throwing my covers off in the same movement, looking around for some shoes to put on. I didn’t see my keys on the dresser, so I started pulling the clothes out of the hamper, flinging each piece of clothing aside after fishing shakily through the pockets to see if my keys were there. I could never find them when I wanted them.
“What are you doing?” he said. “We have to go.”
“I can’t find my keys!” My voice slid up a couple octaves, and my breath hiccupped in my throat. Tears blurred my vision, but I dashed them away impatiently, still digging through the clothes.
“My keys are right here,” he said. “I’m going out to the car.” He picked up his cane.
A thought occurred to me—“Shouldn’t we call 9-1-1?” I asked.
“No.” He shook his head. “I’m not calling an ambulance. I won’t go, then.”
I stared at him. “What?!” This being my first go-round with a real emergency, I hesitated. Should I really just drive him?
“Come on!” he said. “I need to go now. I can’t wait for someone to come.”
He stepped into the hallway, and I followed him. The oldest of the boys was sleeping on the couch in the living room, and as we swept through to head out the front door, I stopped.
“Hey buddy, wake up.” No answer. “HEY!” I shouted, panic edging my voice.
He sat up, blinking through unfocused eyes. “Huh?”
“You have to call Princeton Hospital. Tell them we’re on our way there with your dad. He thinks he’s having a heart attack.”
He stared blankly at me.
“Are you awake?”
He mumbled something I couldn’t understand.
“We have to go. Call them right now.” Not waiting to see if he got up to call, I yanked the door open. “Lock the door!” I let the door slam behind me. Phyl was already almost to the car, and I hurried down the sidewalk to catch up.
It was March, and it was cold, but there were still early signs of spring outside. It was about 4:30 in the morning, not yet light out. Part of my brain noticed the sound of the cedar waxwings as they were beginning to stir. Their high-pitched trills seemed to echo the panic that was starting to bubble up in my chest. I focused on getting in the car and buckling my seat belt, Phyl’s labored breathing urging me to keep moving. I backed out of the driveway and drove down the silent street. None of the neighbors’ lights were on yet, and it felt as if the whole world was standing still while we rushed through it.
I focused on the familiar route that would get me to the highway. I mumbled a litany of instructions to myself as I drove. “Watch the corner at the stop sign; look for traffic; nope, no headlights, keep going; don’t stop, watch for deer. Go faster; no, I don’t dare. What if he dies in the car?” Shut up, I thought fiercely. “Keep driving, watch the road, where’s the next turn? Stop light, no cars, don’t stop, keep going.” I turned onto the highway in the direction of the hospital, and we picked up speed as I pressed the gas pedal nearly to the floor, driving as fast as I dared.
“Mmmm,” Phyl groaned.
“How are you doing?” I asked, and looked over at him. As we passed under a streetlight, I could see tiny rivulets of sweat running down the side of his face into his beard.
“Hot,” he said, and he rolled his window down all the way. “Just drive.”
I shuddered as the frigid night air hit the back of my neck. I cursed under my breath. I never cursed. “You stubborn ass son of a bitch,” I said. “Normal people call the ambulance. And what am I doing? Driving to the hospital like a lunatic. This is crazy.”
“Just drive,” he said again, and rocked back and forth. He leaned into the cold air coming in through the window. “Oh, God,” he said. “Hurts so much. I can’t breathe.” I started to tremble, my arms and legs shaking uncontrollably. I didn’t dare take my eyes off the road, afraid that a deer would run out in front of the car, or that I might miss my turn. But even as I drove, my eyes fixed straight ahead, my ears were listening for every breath he took, every whisper, every mumble, every shift in his body—I was aware of it all. I felt as if I were floating, weightless, watching the road with one part of me, and tuning the rest of my being to his frequency, alert for disaster.
“Can I do something?” I asked. I didn’t know what I could do, but it just seemed like I should ask so that I didn’t seem uncaring. He shook his head, still rocking back and forth with his arms braced against the dash and the door, the icy air blowing his beard askew.
Still no cars on the road. How long is it going to take? This is taking forever! I ran the next red light. Where, oh where, is a cop when you want one, I thought. Any other time if I so much as thought about rolling through a stop sign, there one would be, sitting down the street just waiting for me, waiting to pounce if I didn’t come to a complete stop. But now, when there were no other cars on the road and I was blowing through every red light I came to, they were nowhere to be seen.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, we pulled in to the hospital’s parking lot. It was almost 5:00 am, and still pitch-black outside. I pulled up in the emergency room driveway and shut off the car. Phyl got out and started for the entrance. Adrenaline catapulted me out my door. I ran around the car to close his door and heard the beeping alarm that reminded me his keys were still in the ignition. Part of my brain wondered if someone would steal the car, but I left them there and ran to open the entry door. The small lobby inside looked discouragingly dark, and when we pulled on the handle of the second entryway door, the door was locked. It took a second before I saw the red phone by the door. I lifted the receiver and stabbed at the buttons, hoping someone would be on the other end.
“Yes, can I help you?” a calm voice asked.
Between breaths, I blurted, “My, my boyfriend…heart, think he’s…having a heart attack…chest pain…can’t breathe…”
The door buzzed. “Come on in,” the calm voice said.
A nurse met us at the desk that was just inside the door.
“Did my son call?” I asked. “He was supposed to call. Tell you we were coming.”
“No,” she said. “No one called. Come this way, and I’ll get you into a room.” She didn’t stop to ask for any more information than I had already given her. She led us into the closest exam room, reached for the phone and paged over the intercom. I could hear her voice echo down the hallway as she sent out a call for help to all available personnel. I winced as I sat down, noticing that every muscle in my back and neck had clenched up into one solid knot. There was a dull, throbbing pain that went up the back of my head and down into my forehead.
The nurse with the calm voice was the only one on duty in the emergency room, but she knew exactly what to do. Her movements were quick and efficient as she wrapped a tube of elastic around his arm, getting an IV into his vein on the first try, which was a miracle in itself. Usually it took three or four jabs when they drew blood from him. She started collecting and stacking items on a stainless steel tray—a couple of pouches of clear liquid and several assorted instruments—when another nurse pushed the curtain open.
A minute or two later, Phyl was sitting up on the exam table as they worked together, and he looked over at me and said, “I’m going to black out.” My eyebrows rose as I took in his words. He said again, “I’m blacking out. Tell the kids I love them.” I didn’t answer, staring wide-eyed as he fell over backwards, landing with a thud in the middle of the narrow exam table. It looked as if someone had poured purple ink inside his body and it was filling him up like he was a glass of water. I watched the line of purple race up his neck and into his face, taking over the pink color and turning his whole head a grayish blue. His hands fell loosely to his sides.
The first nurse whirled around, pulled what looked like two small irons off the wall, and barked at me. “Get out. You don’t need to see this.” I stared at her dumbly. “Get out,” she repeated.
Almost numb, disbelieving, I stepped out of the room and the other nurse closed the double doors behind me. I knew what had just happened, but at the same time, I suspended that knowledge, putting it on the shelf while hope took its place, waiting with me. I sat down on the chair outside the door to wait.
Through the door, I heard someone say, “CLEAR!”
A silent conversation ping-ponged back and forth in my head. What’s going on? They’re giving him the paddles. I knew what that meant, but what did it mean for him? Surely they would work. What if they didn’t?
Again, someone said, “CLEAR!”
My face felt frozen as thoughts raced in and out of my mind, chasing each other back and forth like fawns in the spring, leaping over hurdles and then crashing headlong down to the ground. Why isn’t it working? What will the kids say? How will I tell them? Do I leave him here? Who do I call? What do I say? What are they doing in there now? It’s taking so long.
Again I heard, “CLEAR!”
And then again.
The next thing I heard was a roar. A loud roar, like you might hear in a gladiator’s ring when one last mighty effort is made. And I heard the same thing again, longer this time.
And then there was lots of talking, and more people were coming down the hall, not quite running, but walking fast in that way that makes you look and then quickly step aside if you are in their path. They went in his room, and there was more talking. And more waiting.
Finally, the first nurse opened the door and spoke to me. “You can come in,” she said. “We’ve got him sedated, and we’re airlifting him to Southdale. He almost didn’t make it. We had to shock him several times.”
I know, I thought. I could feel one of the knots in my neck loosen ever so slightly. I watched her face as she talked, nodding so she would know that I heard her. I could feel my legs trembling, and I had no words, no conscious thought at that moment.
“He was dead for six minutes,” she said. “We’ve never heard anyone roar like that when they come back. He must have had something to come back for.” She smiled at me. Only then did I start to cry.