Three men looking the same in size, age and identical black leather flight jackets quickly wheeled me to the waiting helicopter and slipped me inside. Strapped to a hospital back board by tight yellow straps, I felt like I was in a washing machine rotating under the gauzy haze of a morphine cocktail. One of the medics slipped a breathing tube into my nostrils and I fell into a restless sleep.
I awoke to the bright lights of Reno below me. In the distance, as we approached the landing pad on top of Saint Mary’s Hospital, I could see two silhouettes standing by a portable bed waiting for the copter to descend and the rotor blades to stop. I had just been air lifted from the emergency room at one of the most remote and smallest medical clinics in California to a high rise hospital in a gambling town that called itself, “The Biggest Little City in the World.” I felt as if I were still flying. Strapped down again, panic swept through me as they wheeled me through the opaque halls. “Slow down,” I said, but there was no audible voice, no one to hear. This was my first time as a patient in a large hospital. Here, I would be tested for possible cardiac disease.
The next morning, I called my husband, James, on my cell phone. He had remained home on our small ranch in order to feed the animals and complete the morning chores. He would make the four-hour drive south to Reno once his work was done. I was hungry, but didn’t get breakfast, as I was whisked away to radiology for X-rays. I was stunned to see a Star Trek style bed that looked like a huge doughnut. I watched anxiously as other patients were glided into the opening. As a confirmed claustrophobic, I chanted my prayer: don’t close, don’t close, don’t close. Thankfully, the doughnut remained open as the X-ray technician snapped pictures of my internal organs.
Next, was the cardiac stress test, which used medication to increase my heart load. The medicine made me gag; I could feel the bile inside my throat. After the tests, I was wheeled into the “cafe,” a small hallway where other diners sat. The attire was formal: gowns, one size fits no one, in shades of pale green or light blue. We wore capped IV cords, needles inserted into our arms, like corsages. We sat in plastic chairs, trays pushed up against our bellies. A light meal was served to help decrease the nausea. I forced down my dry muffin and tea hoping to settle my queasy stomach.
After more tests and much waiting, the cardiologist came into my room later that evening. “There is no sign of cardiac damage, your arteries are clear, and all of your blood work looks good. You shouldn’t have any cardiovascular problems for the next three years,” he said; “Take a couple of weeks off work and make an appointment with your primary care physician.” That was the good news, but he gave no diagnosis or explanation for the fatigue, the horrific chest pain, headaches, and nausea that brought me here. It was late in the evening before I was released to travel the long drive home.
My nameless illness began after a typical day of teaching high school when I came home and fell into bed at 5:00 pm and slept fourteen hours straight. The next morning, I could not get up; exhaustion had nailed me to the bed. This was unusual behavior for someone who could dance circles around my lethargic ninth graders. I called in sick and slept the rest of the day and most of the next two days. On the fourth day, my husband had an early appointment out of town. It was February. Temperatures had dropped down to twenty-seven below. By mid-afternoon, I had to get wood to keep the fire going in the wood stove. It took incredible effort to load and stack the wood. Then, it happened: my body shook violently, I couldn’t catch my breath, and my chest crushed me into pieces. The circulation drained out of my fingers and arms. Alone and on the verge of hysteria, I collapsed just as my husband drove up our dirt road. Before he could get out of his truck, I said, “Take me to the hospital, now!” For the next three weeks, I was in and out of the local ER and the doctor’s office: maybe it was a respiratory infection, maybe it was anxiety, maybe a hormonal imbalance. As headaches, weariness, and shortness of breath worsened, it was finally decided I should have tests done at a cardiac center in Reno. But now, with the cardiac tests completed, I was still without an answer.
The ride continued. There was an elephant delicately balanced on one foot, its heavy weight pushing down directly on my chest. My heart was strong, my arteries clear, but I couldn’t dislodge that big foot. I wore braces on my teeth in middle school, and the dentist would stretch rubber bands on tiny hooks to create pressure on my jaw for alignment. I felt those bands now, constricting and contorting my face. I was told it was only anxiety, as if it would blow away like dust, but it wrapped its coils around me tighter, squeezing until tears welled up in my eyes and forced me to surrender.
The elephant’s foot pressed harder, immovable. The problems, unresolved. Like the rash—a reaction to a new prescription. When I stopped taking the medication, the rash disappeared, but all the terrible symptoms came back. I argued with myself, what if I can’t pull this together? How will I get back to work? Shut up. Stop worrying. My mind was a drippy faucet, and no matter how hard I tried to shut it off, it kept dripping worry. I sat on the couch with my iPad, let the words fall onto the page, and even as I was writing I was thinking, I should get that paper work down to the school district office. I need to get some groceries. I need to turn in those corrected tests. I had better buy stamps tomorrow. As if I would actually leave the house.
A few days later at the doctor’s office, my Family Nurse Practitioner, Vivian, made a new plan. Her words ran through my mind, “Let’s temporarily try Klonopin in the evening to help you sleep, then we’ll use Xanax as needed to help with the anxiety symptoms. I will set up an appointment for telemedicine for cognitive therapy,” she said. It sounded so simple, but out in the parking lot, I sat immobilized, hiding sticky tears under my sunglasses because I couldn’t start my truck and move forward. Eventually, I made it home and warily took the new medication.
I was ironing the curtains after a visit with the psychologist. Wood stove ash had accumulated over the long winter and sprinkled the curtains, the windowsills, and the base boards with a thick, black soot. Because I couldn’t return to my teaching job, house cleaning filled my time between naps. I set up the old ironing board in the kitchen, turned on Pandora’s Indigo Girl’s radio, and cried through the first song, Water Shed, what happened to me? In the past, I was often called Pollyanna, the optimist. Now, I frequently felt sad. The song began: “Thought I knew my mind like the back of my hand, the gold and the rainbow, nothing panned out as I planned.” I wanted control over my health, my life. Instead, I felt powerless as my anxiety escalated and my energy waned.
I put in my resignation from my teaching job, having no idea of the direction I am headed. While I can’t change the present, I can walk into the darkness and still grow. I remember a backpacking trip through the the High Sierra Trail in Sequoia National Park. The trail travels through an area of forest that was burned by the Buckeye Fire in 1980. The fire-scared trees rose tall against a cloudy, grey sky, and the smoky scent of the charred trees remained thick in the air. Around the sandy trail where vegetation once grew, there was an absence of plant life. For the giant Sequoia, fire dries out the trees’ cones, allowing the seeds to open and scatter onto the forest floor, and in this blackened forest, new life is created.
Kandi Maxwell is a retired high school English teacher. She has facilitated three memoir-centered writing workshops for Memoir Journal’s (In)Visible Project. Her essays have been published in The Teacher’s Voice, California English, Ray’s Road Review, Thinkfinity, Fair Haven Literary Review, KYSO Flash, and One in Four.