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heart many hands


I had a cardiac ultrasound today.
Brief backstory: My body has become a whiny, needy child requiring loads more attention than I ever thought my lifestyle would require. Which is a bitch, because I adopted this lifestyle in an effort to (a) avoid this mayhem and (b) clear away the wreckage of misery.
I think it is safe to say the wreckage is decidedly not cleared. I’ve merely traded some garbage for other garbage.
These days, I’m swelling like Violet Beauregarde after she ate that blue candy in Willy Wonka’s factory. And I feel like shit. Leaded shit.
Complaining does not mean I disparage my lifestyle. No doubt things would be far worse without it. I’d just really hoped for a bouncier time of it. I thought I’d arrive at this point in my life with more oomph, and less ugh.

In an effort to understand the cause of my expansion, I’ve peed in bottles and given up blood. I’ve been twisted, punctured, adjusted, irradiated, medicated. My one doctor has had me drop my pants more in the last 3 months than anyone else has in years (and he never even offered me chocolate). This swelling remains a mystery.

Anyway, back to the ultrasound.

I was writing on my laptop, in the waiting room of the hospital’s outpatient cardiac testing department, when the technician, Ann, called my name. I looked up to see a tall, slim, very pinched-faced older woman whose thought-bubble above her head read, “You’re probably a huge waste of my time, but, whatever. Let’s do this already.”

I packed up my belongings and followed Ann to a room up the hall.
She walked as though it pained her emotionally as well as physically. For such a long woman, she took short steps.
We entered a room that was easily 15 degrees colder than the rest of the hospital. As we arrived, I suggested I should probably use the bathroom first, since I was already doing the pee-pee-dance, and I knew I’d need to lie still on that cold testing table for some time. She grunted noncommittally and moved into a supply closet toward the back of the room, where she found me a gown.
She told me to use the bathroom first before changing and said she’d show me the way. This all seemed to take forever (it was probably only 2 minutes); this matters because it turned out the bathroom was right next to the exam room. Like, directly next door.
She could have pointed. She could have said, “It’s right out the door to the left. Just as soon as you step out into the hall, pivot, and you’ll be in the toilet.”

Anyway, while I was seated on the toilet, I noticed there was a stain on the floor from an apparent leak in the piping under the sink. Like most of this section of the hospital, the bathroom was newly refinished. I figured this was a new leak, but poorly attended, since there was already a stain in the wood underneath.
Like a good dog, I felt someone needed to be alerted. But before I would unduly alarm anyone, I needed to be certain this was a current leak, an Active Leak, and just not a past-leak stain. No one could say I’m premature in my need to alarm; I need proof Timmy’s in the well.  So, I finished peeing, grabbed a piece of paper towel, and touched it to the elbow of piping under the sink. The towel was wet (Aha!) but it also came away soiled, like it had piddled a little pile of dirt onto my towel. This was not at all what I was expecting, so I made a small sound, like “oooh” and felt the need to wash my hands thoroughly, twice, thereby adding to the already building puddle under the sink.

I returned to the exam room and Ann promptly closed the curtain, enclosing us both on one side of the large, empty room. She lifted the folded dressing gown and shuffled toward me.
En route, I told her that the sink had a leak. Ann offered a far larger shrug than I thought would be possible for her, considering the effort it seemed to take her to just look irritated and bored. Her shrug spoke volumes, and none of it cared about my need to alert the press.
Her shrug was pregnant with judgment.
Her shrug made me feel a bit silly, so I said something like, “Oh, well, I thought I should tell someone. It seemed someone would want to know. I know it’s not your sink, but, well, someone….” And then I fell silent.
She completed her ages-long journey across that 5 foot space and handed me my gown. Let me say here that the gown seemed to have been refrigerated. It felt unusually cold, like the supply closet where it had been stored doubled as a meat locker.
I took the gown from her but she remained standing unusually close to me. We stood like this for what seemed a very long time: me holding the icy gown, her staring with shoulders hunched and head tilted; she oozed vacancy and irritation.
I was confused.
She’d cornered me in the room and I didn’t understand where to dress.
She stood waiting.
I began to think about how odd it is that, in the world of health care, we are given gowns and left alone to change, afforded an artificial sense of privacy, only to have the gown-bearer return to touch and inspect parts of our flesh that might be covered by the gown, if they were to leave us intact.
But they don’t.
And we know they won’t.
We are falsely draped, only to be inspected bare.
So here I was, thinking about this farcical privacy, and wishing I had just a bit of it, and internally laughing at my weird prudishness.
Part of me really wanted to be okay with stripping off my clothes right in front of her, and part of me wanted to shock her into reality, reminding her she was supposed to leave while I dressed.
So I began to take of my shirt. I was sure she’d see me and realize Ooops, that she should turn, or go– but no. The shirt came off and Ann was there to stay.
I took off my bra. Ann remained.
Then she did a strange thing (it was as if she’d been on delay): I was nude now, and she lifted the gown, holding it open in front of her face, so I could turn and slip my arms in.

I climbed onto the gurney, and she slow-shuffled to turn down the lights so we could get started on the lube-and-grope portion of our visit.
She had me turn on my left side and covered my right arm with a small towel, like the kind you’d have in your kitchen. This was to keep me warm in the sub-zero freezer that was our room. No blankets for the weary.
I commented that maybe I’m just tired, but wow, this gurney was the most comfortable one I’ve ever experienced. She remained impassive. Ann did not care.
So I sunk down into a kind of meditative rest and let myself really appreciate the comfy gurney with tea-towel blanket.

I barely turned my head on the pillow and Ann sternly directed me to hold still. She explained she was “taking pictures of [my] heart, and everything will get all messed up” if I moved. Gee, this seemed highly technical. I agreed to hold even more still.
She was focused and I was obedient.

Then something miraculous happened to Ann. I don’t know what changed for her, but she began to warm and talk to me as if I were a child. “Look. This is your heart. See here?” and she explained her craft.
As she talked, she became more animated, with a kind of wonder in her voice.
I asked how long she’s been doing this work, and she said, “32 years. I love it.”
She talked about the challenges of imaging a very sick heart (“You work for half hour and it feels like you worked the whole day! It’s just exhausting… And sad.”), and the joys of seeing a sick heart get healthier (“It’s such a beautiful thing to see that.”).

She described the way the heart is elastic, stretching and contracting, as if she was describing the miracle of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. She used her hands to mimic the movement of a beating heart, and her face lit up.

I shared with her the story of my youngest child’s tumor and how it was found during a cardiac ultrasound.
Ann praised god and marveled at the powers of motherhood (“See how god worked through you!?”).
She praised Jesus.
I praised the artful and attentive technicians, the skillful and compassionate nurses and doctors.
I praised mother’s intuition, and the strength of little girls who are so very brave; and the wonder of bodies that are (sometimes) blessedly resilient.

We talked about aging and stiffness; about bellies that seem to appear overnight with age (where’d that come from??); the beauty and gift of yoga.

When it was time for me to dress, Ann returned to stand as she had before—inappropriately near to me. But this time, her face was more open. She complained about her changing shape and her achy body, about her physical inflexibility, and her pain.
I told her about my classes and she asked for my card. She remained over-close, so I dropped the gown, standing full-on naked in front of Ann. She was unfazed.
I dressed, and she attended.

Once I was fully dressed, Ann enthusiastically walked me to the exit —a trip that she did not have to take—just so we could keep chatting.
When I left her, she was standing taller.
Ann’s face had transformed with her smile; she was glowing.
This was not at all the woman who’d first come to collect me from the waiting room, such a short time ago.