By Don C. Reed
In her hospital gown, Gloria, my wife of fifty years, was walking on the treadmill. Gradually the speed increased, faster and faster. I worried she might slip, I stood in closer to her, crowding the attendant, who was also trying to protect her from falling.
With a hum, the machine altered its angle, forcing Gloria to trudge up a hill.
Wires were taped to her chest. These led to a machine, behind which sat a cardiac specialist, studying the messages from Gloria’s heart.
She breathed more rapidly. Sweat glistened.
The doctor frowned at the machine.
“I don’t like this,” she said.
At 74, Gloria was a prime candidate for a heart attack. Her weight was a challenge; and her relatives died frequently of cardiac arrest.
Stents were mentioned: multi-purpose tubes down the arteries all the way to her heart. A tiny camera would send pictures. If it showed a narrowing of the artery, a metal mesh stent would be inserted, permanently, more room for blood-flow.
“If there are major problems,” said the doctor, “You might need to consider open heart surgery.”
“None of that!” snapped Gloria. Her mother Sally had had the procedure: her ribs cracked open, exposing the heart. Afterwards the ribs were sewn back together and Sally had lived till 86, so it was a victory.
But the healing, Gloria remembered, had been a year-long agony.
“No open-heart surgery!” she repeated, looking straight at me.
She did give me the power of decision (about the stents) for when she was unconscious, but her wishes about open-heart surgery were clear.
“Not even if it would save your life?” I asked.
“Not even then.”
Two days later we arrived at the hospital: eight in the morning.
Would we be first in line for the operation?
“Code blue!” came the voice on the loudspeaker.
That meant someone was having a heart attack, right now.
He or she got the first operation. That was right and proper, (they were at risk of dying) but still it increased the nerve-wracking delay. “Code blue” happened again, several more times, and there were only three beds for the operation.
Gloria is not over-burdened with patience. We often say, when they were passing out patience, she had no time to wait for it.
I asked the nurse how long the wait would be.
“No way of telling,” she answered, “This is a hospital, you know. Dealing with emergencies is what we do all day long,” the nurse said shortly, busy saving lives.
“What if the doctors work too hard and get tired?” said Gloria. “Have they had lunch? I don’t want someone exhausted working on me! I want them well-fed and rested!” The nurse reassured her; there were five doctors on duty: plenty for the job.
Nourishment was on Gloria’s mind, having fasted (neither food nor water) since midnight. Now, they would not even give her ice chips. Thirst became a burning desire, made more as she is a diabetic.
“I need to go to the bathroom!” she said suddenly. This was strange, because she had just been.
“Of course — and I will go with you,” said the nurse. Gloria tried to talk her out of it, saying she had been using the restroom on her own for quite a while now.
“No, no, it’s okay,” said the nurse, and accompanied my wife into the restroom.
Gloria came back looking frustrated.
“I was going to cup my hands at the faucet and get some water to drink!” she whispered, “She was on to me!”
“They do this so often, they must know all the tricks!” I whispered back.
I read out loud from a Maigret mystery book by Simenon, a wonderful author. But it was over too fast. His books are short, and I only had a few chapters to read.
But whenever I stopped talking, I felt the fear closing in.
A phrase from Edgar Allan Poe returned to me, “Darkness, decay, and the red death held illimitable dominion over all.”
As far as I could tell, Gloria was not visibly concerned about dying.
“What better place than to be with God?”, she said when we discussed it.
“Well, that’s nice, but what about me?” I asked.
“We would only be separated for a little while”, she said, “You are getting pretty old, after all”.
That comforted her, but not me.
She told me to put my head down on the bedrail beside her, and take a nap.
I tried, but the bar was cold, and nightmare scenarios kept playing in my mind.
What would I do without her? We were best friends for half a century, and we still played cards every night. She hates to lose and seldom does — but in our last game I kept getting great cards and there was no way I could lose. I deliberately made stupid moves one after another, but it was almost impossible not to win. I managed to lose somehow, and she laughed her laugh of sheer delight.
I knew I could physically survive without her, eating pizza and cold cereal.
But she was like movie Technicolor; without her, life would be black and white …
Once, I stopped an air plane for her. She had been visiting my sister Patty. I was home on leave from the Army. Gloria was with a boyfriend. But when I saw her, I felt a sensation like growling inside me. I physically stepped between her and the boyfriend, and turned my back on him. Somehow Gloria and I ended up in the same car heading for the airport, while the boyfriend rode with my mother. I had always been shy before Gloria, but now I was talking so much we missed the freeway turnoff, and arrived at the airport — late.
The boyfriend put out his arms. “Oh, I was so worried!”, but I just wanted to get her on that plane.
Through a glass window in a door, I saw a jet slowly moving down the runway.
I leaped over a velvet rope, opened the door and ran out on the tarmac, fast as I could, Running beside the accelerating airplane, hoping it was the right one, I shouted like a madman. A tiny face appeared at a window. I waved. The face went away. I thought I had lost but kept running. The plane separated the distance between us — and then brakes squealed, and it stopped. Today I would probably have been shot by an air marshal, but those were gentler times.
If Gloria died? I imagined myself wandering through our empty house, searching for her, calling “Hon?” but there was no answer.
I raised my head, looked at her: silent, immobile, eyes shut: like in a coffin.
And then, just for a second, and I don’t know why — my selfish fears went away, and I thought: hundreds of millions of people all across the world; all loving someone like I love Gloria. How many might needlessly die from heart disease.
A scientist’s name flashed through my mind. Joseph Wu. I had written about him several times, how he (from Stanford) and Deepak Srivastava (Gladstone Institutes) were fighting end-stage heart failure by “replacing lost cardiomyocytes (heart cells) with healthy ones…”
I made a mental note to contact one of them when this was over, ask how they were doing.
CIRM (the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) was providing grant money for the two great scientists, money they needed to fight heart disease.
But when that program’s money was gone… would California renew it?
We must make it happen.
The curtains yanked back. “Your turn!” said the smiling male nurse. He put his hands on the end of Gloria’s wheeled bed.
“Wait!”, I said, “This is the most wonderful person in the world — be careful!”
“I will, I promise!”, he said — like what else could he say? — and wheeled her away.
My last words (last words!) to Gloria were: “Love you, angel!”
Hers were: “Go get something to eat!” like I might not remember.
After she left I found the cafeteria, ate a miserable slice of alleged pizza. It was semi-warm, with little bumps and it looked like a model for some rare disease.
I went back to the waiting room, and stayed there for a couple eternities.
The door opened. It was Gloria’s surgeon, still in his blue clothes.
He had a serious expression on his face.
I had done construction work on a high-rise building, when it was just begun, metal skeletons. Scary. Sometimes two beams did not quite fit together, so one was slightly lower than the next, and you might step backwards and “fall” six inches — a short fall jam-packed with terror — that’s what I felt when the surgeon came in.
He was going to tell me they lost her.
But he saw my face, and said, “No, no, everything is okay!”
“What, what, tell me!” I said, restraining myself from grabbing his shirt front.
“I do not often get to give such good news,” he said, “But Gloria’s veins are fine — everybody on this floor would love to trade veins with her!”
I shook his hand four times, after making him repeat himself. There was one vein that was 20% narrower than it should be, (doubtless the reason for the original concern) but it was not life-threatening. No need for stents, nor surgery.
My partner was not going anywhere…
“I’m thirsty,” said Gloria, when she woke up.
She inhaled three bottles of water, two cranberry juice boxes, some vile “tropic-flavor” gelatin, then a lunch, or maybe it was two: everything she asked for.
She was on the phone with our children immediately, and while they were talking, the words “Code Blue” entered the room again — but not for her.
Not for my Gloria.
Don C. Reed is the author of “CALIFORNIA CURES! How the California Stem Cell Program is Fighting to Cure Your Incurable Disease!”, from World Scientific Publishers, Inc., publishers of the late Stephen Hawking.