It’s Called a Heart
(Read previous blog posts: Jesus and His 64 Pointy Disciples and The Mouth in the Middle first)
Most people, if they’re paying attention, have defining moments in their life, that help shape their future. Sometimes we know what’s coming and can prepare and other times it levels us. The first major defining moment in my life uniquely did both.
My senior year in high school (go ahead and groan-you’ll feel like an asshole later), I was active, Captain of the Cougarettes* (the dance team-so ahead of my time), Co-Editor of the Yearbook, dance classes, and tennis (but that was mainly to wear the short skirts/cute outfits). The point: healthy, typical boy crazed high school female.
Not typical, I was getting crushing chest pains, to the point that I would double over, and the pain would bring tears to my eyes. I was getting winded walking up a flight of stairs and kept breaking out in really weird rashes on my legs and face called folliculitis**.
*The word ‘cougar,’ to describe all woman of a certain age (yes, I am of that age) is often misused. A younger man may be interested in an older woman but if that woman isn’t interested that doesn’t make her a cougar. That’s not to say I haven’t dated younger guys, that would make me a cougar, and to that I say: Cubs need love too.
I remember sitting in class, I can’t tell you what class but, as usual, I can tell you what I was wearing: my blue and white striped sweatshirt with red Benetton going down the arm, matching blue skirt and K-Swiss tennis shoes. Amazing, how clothing has been such a part of my life’s tapestry. School? Clearly, not so much. Clothing? Absolutely. I still remember what I wore on the first day of kindergarten! (red dress with abstract Winnie the Pooh faces, that my sister Amy had worn on her first day of school).
Sitting in class and clutching my chest almost sure I was going to die right there in front of everyone. Here is a list of things that went through my mind (not so much as a life flashing before my eyes kinda thing, but more of a weird list steeped in strong Catholic upbringing with a hint of neurotic teenaged girl:
1. I hope these underwear are cute in case I pass out and my skirt flies up
2. I really should have had sex and tried drugs (do you get bonus points in Heaven for abstaining from those things?)
3. Is it true that you lose control of bodily functions when you die? (remember these were pre-internet times, so answers to life’s mysteries were not just a Google search away).
I promised myself, that if I lived to make it out of that class alive, I would ask my parents to take me to the doctor. I told my mom that something seemed off and I really should see a doctor for the crushing pains I was getting in my chest. She joked, ‘this isn’t like the time you wanted to go to the doctor when you were 13 to see when your period was going to come, is it?’*
*When I was 13 (almost 14) all of my girlfriends had either gotten their periods (or at least were smart enough to lie about it) and I begged my mom to take me to the doctor to see when my period would arrive. (I guess I thought a doctor could track your period like UPS can for shoes you ordered from Saks) ”Yes, doctor, I’ll sign for my period now, be sure and have delivered.” I would have to wait until I could pay for boobs for those to arrive.
“Because you think I’d make up crushing chest pains to have a doctor tell me that my boobs are never coming?” I assured her it was no such stunt. I was a slow developer in those areas and yet overly developed in the brain and tongue area. God’s fair I guess. My mom made an appointment with our family practice physician, Dr. Nelson.
In the Fall of 1989, Dr. Nelson recommended that we go to a dermatologist for the strange rashes and cardiologist for the chest pains, since the results EKG, looked normal. My mom took me to a dermatologist who proceeded to take me off of every make up and beauty product for the next two months, with an unchanged outcome. (For a shallow, narcissistic, high school girl not being able to wear make-up or use hair spray (remember the ozone above our house was missing (See previous blog The Mouth in the Middle) this was the equivalent of social suicide).
My amazing parents paraded me to specialist after specialist with my symptoms getting worse. I was getting winded walking up a flight of stairs and the crushing chest pains more frequent and more intense. Doctors told my parents I was just nervous about starting school in the fall at Arizona State University, and the move away was causing anxiety.
Frustrated and angry I told my parents it was more than anxiety and they shouldn’t be offended but most kinds graduating couldn’t wait to get away and I was no exception. Most parents would have ignored their kid or had them committed at this point. More than one doctor charted in my files that I was a high strung, hypochondriac, with dramatic tendencies (tough to argue the last point) .
Sitting in now the third cardiologist’s office, who referenced all the other charts, he very dismissively said he didn’t think there was really anything wrong but I was wasting important people’s time. I assured him through tears of fear, anger and humiliation that I was not imagining this pain. Without even trying to figure out what was causing the problem he declared that he’d had enough was just going to put me on a beta blocker* for the rest of my life.
I stood up, more pissed off and more determined than ever to find a solution and looked at my Mom and said, “Did he just hand me a 64 pack of Crayolas and tell me to go fucking color a picture of Jesus?” (See previous blog post Jesus and His 64 Disciples). Out of character for me at this time, I snapped and said, “I understand you don’t want to do your job but why don’t you send my file around to someone more skilled like cardiothoracic surgeons.”
*beta blockers, among other things cause sexual dysfunction (so ideal for an 18 year old girl who never had sex) along with depression, rashes (I already had those thanks!), dizziness, nightmares, diarrhea, stomach cramps,http://www.merriam-webster.com/medical/beta-blocker
And with that we left the office. The next morning we were leaving for our family trip to the beach for Spring Break (which we politically incorrectly used to refer to as Easter Break) (See previous blog The Mouth in the Middle). I was beginning to accept that I was just going to have to live with these chest pains, or worse I started to doubt my own truth.
My first day back to school after break was brutal. The obvious, I hated school and was bored, but worse, it was like the pains in my chest (which were present all during vacation) were now starting to bring tears to my eyes they were so painful. I was so scared and not sure I could tell my very understanding parents the latest development. Funny thing, I wouldn’t have to.
When I got home from school that day my parents, were sitting in the living room (red flag #1), that was the room that was roped off museum style, they were sitting there together at 3 pm (red flag # 2), and they were crying (red flag #3) (I had only seen my father cry once, for a split second when his father died when I was eight).
I remember this next part with such crystal clarity, as if we just had the conversation yesterday. My mom started, “Dr. Nelson called and wants to know who we want for a cardiothoracic surgeon.” I responded, “For who? Nonie?*” My dad said, “No Melayna, for you, you were right, something was very wrong, you have a tumor on your heart and they want to remove it within the week.” I really will go to extremes to prove a point, won’t I?
*Nonie (Italian) is what we called my mom’s mom
A rush of relief flooded through my body like an electric shock and I felt more alive in that moment than I ever had before. I knew instantly I was going to be fine. Then, a wave of anger, that made the phrase ‘made my blood boil,’ have true context and meaning which gave way to a startling revelation. If I did not have the loving and understanding parents I did, willing to believe in me, and if I had not been persistent in pursuit of truth, resolution and willing to challenge those in authority, I would be dead today. Over the next twenty years, the number of people, and now more so than ever, who wished I’d not have been persistent is overwhelming.