I used to be able to spend decades not thinking about my own demise, although as a teen thoughts of mortality were a constant companion. But in recent years, watching the death and dying of family members and friends, the mortality thing seemed to dominate absolutely everything else. Still, ‘my own demise’ is a fairly abstract concept. And it’s likely to stay that way. A funny, expressionist painting I can’t quite get a handle on. And that’s okay.
But every once in a while, my heart calls my mind to attention.
It seems to be happening about once a year — or at least that’s the pattern over the past four years. Always in springtime. Always around finals. Always inconvenient. Always ignored until the last minute.
With a great sweep of my hand, I push away the signals that something’s wrong and just carry on. I ‘manage’ the situation. I say I-can-handle-anything. I can squeeze-this-into-my-schedule when there’s room for it on my calendar.
It’s not fatal. It just feels like it when it’s happening.
It’s an electrical problem.
Not uncommon at all, apparently, though I’d never heard of it before it introduced itself.
It was a Saturday. So. Saturdays are lousy days to check things out. Sleep on it.
It was a Sunday. So. Hm, still ‘something funny’ going on from yesterday, but Sundays, yikes, that would mean the ER. No way. Wait till Monday. That’s the reasonable thing to do.
It was Monday. Oh shit, I have to give a Final Exam tonight. I’ll get ‘this’ checked out after I give the exam.
Monday night at the final (which begins at 7:45 PM and runs till 10:00 PM) — the first thing out of my mouth is:
“Is anybody a nurse in here?”
And still I didn’t get it checked out. I gave the 2.5 hour exam, drove the 65 miles home and called the after-hours nurse. Who screamed at me to get to the ER. She humphed a lot.
Apparently I’m a minimizer rather than a maximizer.
They didn’t believe I was in labor either, when I came in for each kid.
I joke. I try to entertain the nurses. It’s invariably at night, and I figure they could use someone sane being nice to them. There’s often all this screaming in the ER. Demands. Actual emergencies. People really suffering. People completely out of their gourd. I want to take notes. Wouldn’t this be a great fieldsite? Or has it been done to death by TV?
The nurses I’ve met in the ER at night just completely love their job. They’re cheerful and delightful. Focused and attentive. Reassuring and competent. The doctors are distracted. And they answer the phone every few seconds. Apologize. And do it yet again.
The first two times — I got the same nurse. She’d been a student of mine in MSR (Magic, Science and Religion), it turned out — and she talked my head off half the night, getting me her favorite doctor (the young one she was flirting with), instead of the one that I wanted (the old one, with the long Ashkenazi name). How do you explain that to her? Well, you don’t.
My heart is kicking up a storm and she wants to talk MSR.
I get a lot of nurses in MSR for some reason. Maybe it’s because I start by saying, “This is a class about suffering. About the measures people take throughout the world, to understand misfortune, and alleviate their pain…” It took me years to figure out that that’s what I was teaching. Framing the class like that brought on a nursing student deluge.
So. Last night in the ER. I had taken all the right steps, and still the afib was out of control. The MD said they’d try to get me out of afib before leaving the ER, or at the very least tone it down a bit. And suddenly I understood — there are people who live with a wacked up heart beat all the time — and it never goes away. That feeling that your heart just can’t do this dance anymore, or not with any precision. It’s freelancing. It’s jamming on its own. It’s dancing to the tune of a very bad drummer. And this was me, always assuming the ER could just throw some cocktail down the tube, and I’d be right as rain.
I understood finally what my electro-physiologist meant when he said I’m doing great! I mean, how could this be great? But there it was. My heart responds to therapeutic measures like a champ. It just needs a reminder once in a while — apparently once a year around finals time at the end of Spring Semester — of just how very lucky a heart it is. That it lives just down the hill from one of the top teaching hospitals / medical centers in the world. That it has a strong union that fought hard for those medical benefits. That it lives with someone wonderful who never fails to be right there at my side when it needs that ride five blocks up the hill to the ER. That unlike in Libya, or Somalia, or Syria, the hospital is well equipped and not under siege.
My heart has always been in very good hands.
And so. Last night. With the cheerful nurses and the semi-distracted docs. And the meds, And the ride. And the care. I said a little thank you to them all. For an infrastructure still standing. For a system that still works. To unions who keep fighting. Like when I thanked the Turks — Sometimes thank yous are in order for the care that we receive. The little things that keep our heartbeats steady from IVs shoved up our sleeve.
The heart of the matter is health care, of course. Not just ‘providers’ for those with strong unions or very wealthy kin. Not just for the economic good times. But universal health care. I teach in MSR that it’s when medical systems fail (or don’t exist) that people really pray in earnest. They appeal to higher powers. Or do magical acts in desperation. They seek answers for a failure that really wasn’t from the gods. What we need, Marx said, for starters, is a sense of collective consciousness — going beyond gratitude for our own personal well-being — to thinking of us all. That it’s only when we perceive ourselves united that collective action can follow. I know, I know. It sounds downright un-American, doesn’t it? But maybe what we need to think about is not our own mortality or that of those we love — but of our mortality rate instead.