One week to the day before his 45th birthday, Michael Westerman, rushing up a staircase, got winded. He pulled the banister until he made it to the top. He felt like sitting, right there on the floor, but instead arched forward and struggled to stand upright. He closed his eyes and tried to pull himself from whatever had seized him. It gripped his back and pulled him down with the force of a tackling football player as the floor rose to meet him.
A moment of unconsciousness, then an ocean of confusion worked to pull him into the undertow. He pulled away, struggled, heard a door open, a shout of panic, and then nothing.
Some time later a sharp turn woke him enough to let him feel that he was being held down by a rope or strap. He leaned forward, but the world was blocked off by the large shoulder of a man fastening him to a gurney. He leaned back and listened as he was rushed, in an emergency vehicle, with screaming sirens and beeping sounds of vital signs, forward. Everything moved forward through time until something shifted, then motion slowed as a needle descended into his arm to draw blood.
“What happened?” he asked.
No one heard him.
The air was noisy with messages radioed in and out of brick-size walkie-talkies.
The clipped back-and-forth exchanges through the static of rubber antennas revealed that the situation involved Michael’s heart, a shortness of breath, and his pulse; more than that, he could not decipher.
Once stabilized, testing began. The evening was rationed among a dozen departments, each with its own method of using waves to produce images. Once orchestrated, Michael’s allotment of electromagnetic, high frequency, high definition, and high-speed microwave flashes pointed to a broken mitral valve. A medical history showed that, like many healthy people, he had been born with a slight, unimportant abnormality. In time, however, nature selects a small percentage of differentiated hearts for the higher level of drama that now was to include Michael. By the last of the tests, Michael was fully conscious.
He held still.
“If they can’t read it we’ll have to redo it.”
“Do you ever get checked for radiation exposure?”
“Yes. And so far so good.”
“That’s good. Can you see my valves on the screen?”
“I’m not authorized to comment. Your doctor will go over it with you.”
“Does it look bad?”
“I’m not authorized to comment.”
“But just tell me, on a scale from 1 to 10, is it good or ba — ?”
“Sir, I’m not authorized to comment.”
One day later, even after coming to accept that he’d been scheduled for open heart surgery, it was difficult to recall which person from the nonstop rotation of staff members coming through his room had been the first to alert him of his condition. He borrowed a stethoscope to hear for himself the sound that seemed to intrigue everyone. He had a vague sense of what he should hear, but beyond that, he had low expectations of being able to detect anything out of the ordinary, as he had no idea what kind of sound indicated a healthy heart. When he listened, however, the sound was different from the rhythmic in-and-out that he had expected. The “in” was fine, but the “out” was more expansive, like an ocean wave washing onto a beach, unpunctuated.
A friend visited. “Are you depressed?”
“Of course I’m depressed.”
“Don’t be. You can be angry that it’s you, and irritated that you’re going to have pain, but that’s it. After you’re over this, you’ll move on. I can tell you from my own situation, depression comes from thinking there’s nothing left for you, but there is, because you’ll always love the things you love.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“Think back, before this, before you even started to feel tired, what did you love?”
“I don’t know, not that much.”
“Tell me one thing that excited you. . . .”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what could have excited you, even if it rarely did? Just one thing.”
“Maybe a good smell . . . occasionally, but I’d have to be in a pretty good mood to start with.”
“What kind of smell?”
“It would have to be part of something, like from a great meal.”
“The back of a neck.”
“What back of a neck?”
“The scent from the back of a woman’s neck. Not always, but sometimes, when it combines with her hair, yes, that.”
“Did you do that on the subway?”
“Are you an idiot? It would have to be a girlfriend, or close.”
“All right, so if you focus on something like that, there’s no way it won’t help. If something got you pumped up once, it could do it again, no matter how much time has passed.”
“But it gets harder every year to be blown away by anything. That’s a fact.”
“Look, you’ve had a bad year and now you’re here, but you know you’re just as capable of getting excited as you ever were.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But you don’t know. And that’s something.”
“I don’t know.”
“Name one good thing about being here.”
“Name one thing.”
“I guess it’s safe. I don’t have to worry about getting help if I get a heart attack.”
“Tell me another good thing and I’ll leave you alone.”
“Just one more thing.”
“It’s a hospital, so it’s sexy.”
“Totally. In fact, while it’s not why I’m here, it got me to hurry.”
“Seriously, the way the nurses lean over you to check the IV, it’s awesome. And they’re so attentive. I honestly think you’d be having a ball here, if only you weren’t wearing a gown that looks like a pamper.”
“Let me tell you, even without the gown, it’s hard to convince yourself you stand a chance when the women you think are hot keep asking you if you’ve moved your bowels.”
“I’m sure you can get beyond it.”
“Not really. This morning I was informed that if I don’t produce a masterpiece soon, they’re going to give me a suppository to ‘help things along.’ ”
“New subject: I listened to your message, and I think it’s a mistake not to let your students know you’re here. I get why you don’t want them to see you like this, but it might do you good to see how much they care. You know they talk about you like you’re a god.”
“I’m their instructor, so of course it looks to them like I know a lot.”
“I’m talking about something different. They really do talk about you like you’re God. Why not let them visit?”
“Afterward, when I’m recovering.”
“I’m going to hold you to it.”
“A question on his chart,” Michael hears from just outside his door. “If the doctor orders it on Friday, which shift would — ”
“Any of us could do it.”
They were talking about the suppository. “I’ll make a note on the chart. It’s no big deal; I give them to patients all the time. You should watch. I’ll show you how to do it.”
He recognized the voice, it was the one with the tattoo; he could do worse. If the doctor insisted, he’d let her do it. But without the witness.
The following day, his friend returned.
“Does the procedure scare you?”
“Not really. I realize it’s probably going to go fine. I gather that a mitral valve is like a joke around here, I get that. But I feel that it’s the start of a second phase for me, which means I didn’t accomplish everything I had hoped to in the first phase.”
“You’re not dying, you don’t even have heart disease. It’s just a valve. After this you’ll live as long as anyone. Do you ever consider how lucky you are? Do you realize that your neighbor found you right after you passed out? Michael, do you even realize how lucky it is that he managed to get help in time?”
To Be Continued
Mitch Adler, a SAT tutor in East Hampton, was a contributing editor at National Lampoon who won first prize in an Internet-based science fiction contest and has contributed previously to The Star. He recently underwent the surgical procedure described in “Heart Open.”