This is What I Remember, Not What Happened
I remember it was 1994 or 1995. I remember that it was hot. Like really, really hot. Heat wave hot. Do I remember hearing something about heat stroke killing record numbers of turkeys or chickens or some kind of commercial fowl on Iowa farms? I remember playing basketball outdoors in that heat. I remember we had a regular game on a nice outdoor court that (maybe) was on a hill with a view of the Iowa River. I wasn’t sure I wanted to play that day because it was so hot. That, I definitely remember.
I remember a bright, sunny day with a thick, Midwestern summertime feeling of oppressive humidity, like the air was almost wet. There were huge, puffy clouds drifting through that endless Iowa sky. I remember pedaling my bike up to the edge of the court and talking to the regulars. “Who’s got next?”
I remember that I waited a while for a game, but the side I played with in that first run was good. I remember that we were winning. We kept winning, and held the court for three more games, I think. I remember, with an unusually vivid visual memory, after the third game, taking off my shirt and wringing it out. I can see my hands wringing out the shirt, my sweat splashing onto the ground. In my memory, this shirt is dark blue.
I remember sitting on the ground, exhausted. “One more?” they asked. “I don’t feel that great,” I said. “Hamburg Inn double with egg is sitting a little heavy.” I’d also had fries and a shake. I didn’t care, I rode my bike everywhere and played basketball three days a week, I could eat anything.
I remember being short of breath, my heart fluttering, and having a nauseous, sweaty feeling. I think it was late, around dusk, by the time I grabbed my bike and walked it up the hill to my little basement apartment out on the edge of town by the interstate. I laid down on the couch. My skin was clammy and sweat pooled up on my chest, ran off my forehead, and soaked into the couch. My breathing became shallow and ineffective.
As my heart rate accelerated, I rationalized. “Maybe its food poisoning.” I remember saying this out loud. I knew it wasn’t food poisoning. I remember the feeling of the cool tile floor of the bathroom as I tried to make myself puke, thinking it might make me feel better. It didn’t.
I remember wondering what my insurance situation was and whether I could afford to call an ambulance. I called my girlfriend (now my wife) and begged her to come pick me up and take me to the hospital. She was out with her roommate. I left a half dozen messages on her machine. We weren’t even that close. I remember (earlier that same day, the day before maybe) sitting on the grass in front of my apartment having that weird, “so, like, what are we doing? What are we?” conversation that young couples have. I don’t think I’d thought about whether or not I loved her at that point. I remember thinking she might be a little freaked out by all the messages.
They came and got me, her and the roommate, in her little sports car. I don’t remember much about the ride to the hospital, but sort of recall the streets being empty. It must have been late. I can’t remember if I walked in to the hospital or was wheeled in on a stretcher. There was one doctor, a young resident, in the ER. I have two clear memories of the rest of the night.
First, I remember that young resident slowly realizing this was a serious situation. He took my pulse and his eyes widened. He took my blood pressure with the cuff, looked at it strangely, and said, “that can’t be right,” and then took it again. He walked out of the treatment area, and returned a moment later with another doctor. The new doctor asked if I had taken any drugs. “I wish,” I said. I didn’t really know anyone in Iowa City who could get me weed. Soon, the two doctors were four doctors. “You are having an irregular heart rhythm, called a tachycardia. We are going to give you something to try to control it.” That was probably the first time I’d ever heard the word tachycardia. I seem to recall my field of vision narrowing and feeling warmth spreading out across my body, almost like I’d wet my pants, as the lidocaine was injected.
The second thing I remember about that night, and I am not really sure if I do truly remember this, is seeing one of the doctors leaning over, blocking the harsh light of exam lamp and saying, sternly, “get the defibrillator, now.” In my mind, its the old-fashioned paddles, the ones they rub together and then say “CLEAR” and then shock the patient. Who knows? They use stickers to distribute the charge now. My wife tells me that at some point during all this they asked if she knew how to reach my parents. Her first conversation with my parents was to tell them that I might die.
I remember waking up in the CCU. My Dad was sitting in a chair in the room with me. The funniest thing about all of this is that I remember worrying that he was going to see my tatoos, which I had kept hidden for a couple of years up to that point. This is one of those things that I’m not sure if I remember correctly, or at all, but it has become a part of this story most of the times I tell it.
I don’t know if any of this happened the way I’ve said here. The one thing I know for certain is that some version of this story is how I came to know that I’d been born with a genetic disorder that resulted in the development of a disease of the heart known as arrythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, which would, some twenty-six or so years later, require a heart transplant, just as the world faced off against a global pandemic. Timing has never really been my strong suit.