Today, two months shy of two years since experiencing what is colloquially known as a "Widowmaker" heart attack, I still think about a woman I met that day in the catheterization lab at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas, California. She followed me from the lab to the ICU, and as luck would have it, still visits me from time to time. Her name is Magnolia Traverse. I have come to know her well, and yet, she also remains an enigma, which is weird, since she is, for the most part, me.
We'll skip the gory details of the day and go for highlights instead-- back pain, nausea, light-headedness, chest pain, projectile vomiting -- good times! Later came dozens of people scurrying about on my behalf, the just-in-case pubic shave, waking up naked and freezing on a stainless steel slab, peeing all over myself and feeling OK about that because at least one part of me felt warm. A kind nurse cleaned me up and helped me into a gown. I was transferred from the slab to a cushy, gurney, then draped with a toasty-warm blanket fresh from the dryer. An impossibly young, fit man in hospital scrubs and a mask introduced himself as Dr. Hong. He told me he'd implanted a stent. I shook his hand. Young Dr. Hong rocks.
As the gurney approached the doors leading out of the cath lab en route to the ICU, a young nurse put a comforting hand on my shoulder and said, "Great job, Magnolia!"
Once there, I passed out, exhausted from it all until some 4 hours later, when another hand patted my foot and asked if I'd like some dinner.
"Oh, no thank you," I said. "I just ate lunch." She laughed.
"Well, not exactly," she said. It's a quarter to seven and the kitchen is about to close, so I thought I'd check, just in case you're hungry.
"Quarter to seven?" I had lost half a day. "Wow. Well, no thanks anyway. I'm not super hungry. Maybe just a glass of water?"
"Sure! We'll get that for ya." She scurried from the room.
Everyone who works in hospitals, it seems, is adept at scurrying. There isn't much ambling, sauntering, or sashaying. I like a good sashay, but it would be misplaced in the hallways of such a place. Hospitals are awash with scurriers, but there is also some flat-out running at times, too. I'm especially thankful for that.
Alone in the ICU, I took in the scene, with me in the center of it all. There was a beeping machine just behind my right shoulder, blinking numbers and graphs. A blood pressure cuff rumbled as it squeezed my upper left arm. Calf compressors wrapped around my lower legs felt like two big, warm hands firmly squeezing them to force the blood near my feet back to my heart. There were electrodes pasted to my chest and back, wires running everywhere, but especially to a small box on the side of my mattress, slightly bigger than a remote. I assumed it was some sort of communication device, transmitting every burp, fart, or hiccup to some nebulous back room. A plastic bracelet made of air-filled bubbles graced my right wrist, squishing a drop of blood against my skin, putting pressure on the incision they'd made to insert to the catheter. That same wrist also sported a plastic splint that looked like a small version of the trays you find inside packages of Girl Scout cookies, designed to keep the cookies from being crushed, but also, apparently, to keep a wrist from bending. On the back of that hand, an IV needle was well stuck into a big vein and taped down. It looked like it should hurt, but it didn't.
My glass of water arrived, with one of those cool bendy straws, followed by a nurse with a yet another needle, giving me a shot in the abdomen. This happened every 8 hours. The shots were a blood thinner called Heparin. By the end of my hospital stay, my stomach looked like it belonged to the human stunt double for Rocky Balboa's punching bag.
At some point in the midst of all this, I homed in on the white hospital bracelet on my left wrist. I'd known it was there -- people coming in and out of my room had been scanning it, presumably so they could bill me for everything they did-- but I hadn't looked at it closely. At that moment, however, for some reason, I did, and there she was again: Magnolia Traverse.
My first thought: Awesome. Maybe she'll pay my bill.
My second thought: What if she has some horrible disease that requires some kind of nasty medication with gnarly side effects? What if they're giving that to me?
When the next nurse came in, I asked.
"Excuse me, but the name on my wristband isn't me."
"Really? That's weird," she said.
"Let me check," she said, and typed something into the computer on the stand she'd wheeled in with her. "I have you here as Toni Todd, with all of your info-- STEMI MI (yada, yada). That's you, right?"
"Yep. That's right. But the name on my wristband is Magnolia Traverse."
"Ah," she said. "Well, sometimes when a patient is picked up and brought here by paramedics, the EMTs assign that person a name. So that must be the name they gave you and it stuck. I'll get you a new one."
She did, and when she took the old wristband away, I was, oddly, a little sad. I liked Magnolia, or at least, I liked who I imagined her to be. She seemed steadfast, confident, and far better than me at handling things like this. I could even see her -- short, wavy, brown hair, a loose-fitting frock with big flowers worn over a white turtleneck and sturdy frame, white bobby socks with practical black oxfords, and a kind, "everything is going to be OK, dear" smile. She was reassuring, yet mysterious. I imagined her looking like that, safe and unassuming but also having a black belt in some exotic marshal art, someone who can kill you with their eyes. Maybe she's close friends with Miss Moneypenny at MI6 or has some loose connections with the CIA. Whatever or whoever she was, for those two days in the hospital, Magnolia was real. She was a huge help, a distraction that kept my mind active in a way that didn't allow me to dwell on the seriousness of my circumstances. Magnolia was my confidante. My protector. My advocate and most trusted advisor. In a way, she still is. Magnolia may have left the building that day, but she has not left my psyche. I think of her in times of uncertainty, often asking myself, What would Magnolia Traverse do? And of course, I know the answer. She would do the right thing and I would say, "Great job, Magnolia!"