How to Mend a Broken Heart

4 February 2016 Georgina Smith

How to Mend a Broken Heart

Georgina Smith wrote us this beautiful piece back in May 2010. Sadly, she has since lost her battle with chronic heart disease. Georgina is survived by her daughter Bonnie Smith who has written a tribute to her mother for our current edition (Ed#504).

ON PREVIOUS ADMISSIONS I would have a view to the north. In the morning I would gaze out towards the northwestern suburbs before telephoning my daughter, aware that if she stood outside on her dad’s back veranda she, too, could observe the hot-air balloons floating in the sky.

As soon as she set eyes on them she would respond with a small giggle, freeing me from the isolation of the confined walls. Together, we would begin to describe their colours and patterns while marvelling at their magic.

I would whisper: “Like Winnie-the-Pooh and Christopher Robin, even though we can’t see each other you’re always in my heart.”

But this time my window faces east. Below me, students swarm the university grounds like bees, while the buzzing of heart monitors mounts a brutal assault on my senses.

I have been in hospital for eight days now, and what seems clear is that my recovery is slow, and has not been what was hoped for.

The Cardiac Surgery Handbook is handed to all patients before surgery. It outlines information concerning the procedure and a day-to-day plan for post-op care. It includes things like physiotherapy exercises, diet, caring for wounds, pain management and common emotional symptoms experienced after heart surgery.

The handbook informs me that if I am not ready for discharge by Day Eight, I should be attending physiotherapy classes. There is also a blank space where I am to list how many laps I walk per day (each lap is 75 metres around the cardiac ward). It also notifies me that I should be independently showering and dressing. Instead, my regime consists of daily blood tests, electrocardiographs and more pills than I care to count.

Nurses and physio staff constantly instruct me to move around in order to avoid pneumonia, but I look like the Michelin Man, hauling around eight extra kilos of fluid and in desperate need of a blood transfusion. My abdomen resembles that of a heavily pregnant woman, my legs are like tree trunks and I can’t see my feet. But, worst of all, I don’t have the energy to shower independently. I feel like a failure.

Patients twice my age are parading past my room and I can barely shuffle to the toilet by myself. My surgeon reassures me that my procedure was very complex, and unexpected consequences arising post surgery have slowed my recovery. He encourages me not to compare myself with the other patients.
“You have been through a great deal and therefore your recovery may take a little longer.”

I listen like a well-behaved schoolchild, but it’s difficult to be optimistic when you feel like shit.

The truth is I am bored with sickness – its strictures and relentless needs. I am bored with the pain in my body, its dullness, the wasted space and the finite allotment of energy.

I want to cry and smash things, rage at everyone, tell them they fucked up, that this is not my fault; I was born with a hole in my heart and a congenital heart defect. But hospital protocol encourages stoicism.
Today I will attend physio. My sister springs into my room, ready to support me during my first physio session. She is sweating and has an iPod strapped to her upper right arm. Earphones dangle around her neck. She smells of life. Her body is tanned and taut. She informs me that she has run here today after running two laps around Princes Park.

I smile encouragingly and continue the daily ritual of staring out the window while playing with my breakfast until it no longer resembles a meal, creating the illusion that I have eaten and am well on my way to recovery. She walks to the window and looks out at the world. It’s her way of avoiding my appearance. She is uncomfortable.

In the stifling silence she shifts her weight from one foot to the other and sometimes glances over at me, but I pretend not to notice and continue to pull apart my toast as if I am searching for the tastiest mouthful. I know she sees me as hollow and broken – that’s why she can’t make eye contact. She is afraid of my weakness. She pities me. I want to reassure her, but I’m tired and angry.

I observe her body while she continues to stare out the window. I love and need her, but my emotions contradict this. Part of me hates her because, unlike mine, her body is free to follow its own rules. I know that when she leaves the hospital it won’t be by car or public transport; she will put one foot in front of the other, building a rhythm that will carry her home. She will run the six kilometres home because she can. It’s nearing 9am and she begins to move around me anxiously.

“Come on, George. We better go.” She is anticipating my actions. She wants to help me up but it’s awkward – she knows I am furiously independent. I stand while she wheels the burgundy-and-black trolley walker towards me. I take hold of the handlebars and stabilise myself before I begin to walk. As we pass the bathroom I mention that I still can’t shower myself, somehow hoping she will offer.
We head out into the corridor. Nurses are trailing doctors like servants, and the hospitality-cum-cleaning staff are bitching about the rosters and today’s assigned tasks. They all grin at me offering praise and encouragement, and I, in turn put on my best, most grateful smile. My sister walks beside me, not too close but close enough to assure me of her steadfast presence.

We arrive at a matchbox room usually reserved as a respite area for visiting family and friends, but from 9am to 10am each day it is the healing place for the ‘lucky to be alive’. The walls are beige, the people are beige – except my sister; she is tanned. There is a burgundy couch squeezed against the wall, between two rows of beige chairs. It strikes me that this colour, if you could call it that, is empty, lifeless, as if it carries a message that reads ‘no emotions, please’. We enter together. My sister looks like the physio instructor. I look like a walking corpse.

There are four old men. They are different sizes, but all have grey hair. Three are wearing pyjamas and two have dressing gowns on. They smile and eye my sister up and down. Having interrupted their conversation we find a seat opposite three of them. We all sit, momentarily silent.

“You are too young to be here,” one of them finally declares.

“Disease doesn’t discriminate,” I reply in a sombre voice.

“That’s for sure, luv!”

They resume their conversation, recollecting their posts in some war, recalling different battalion numbers and arguing about the lack of infrastructure that caused the death of so many soldiers.
I am sitting wordlessly, head bowed and feeling responsible for my poor sister, imprisoned in this claustrophobic room with the ‘lucky to be alive’. I struggle to make this strange event feel true, but can’t quite connect myself with the person I find sitting in the chair: a young woman with too many lacerated scars on her chest, a new heart valve that once belonged to a pig, and a battery-operated pacemaker that tries in vain to slow down the arrhythmia of her racing heart. I am battling to reconnect.

I lift my head to look at my sister, hoping she can save me from this nightmare, when suddenly I am face to face with the virility of an old man’s bulging crotch, firmly secured in a pair of royal blue jocks and on display through his partially gaping dressing gown. Unaware, he continues chatting innocently.

Penetrating into the primitive states of my being, my imagination soars towards a world beyond the sterility of this veneered room. I lose control and begin to laugh. Sensing the craziness of the situation, my sister joins me.

I am rescued. Together we are out of control and can’t stop laughing. Doubled over in hysterics I am clinging to Jonathon, a plush supple lion, a gift from my partner. I press him tightly against my chest with both arms because it helps ease the pain of my broken breastbone. Placing her hand on my leg, my sister gives me a gentle squeeze, endeavouring to regain some composure, partly because we appear mad, partly because she can sense that I am in physical pain. I can hear her broken pleas.

“Geor…ok?”

“…are you…?”

“Georg…drink?”

“…want…tissue…?”

“George…we…stop.”

I am wiping the happy tears from my face and fumbling my apologies to the other patients, who all are smiling at me sympathetically, when the physio instructor finally appears like a hologram from another world. Her blonde hair is pulled tightly into a ponytail. Her face is shiny and youthful. She smiles at the ‘lucky to be alive’; her mouth is luscious, revealing chalk-white teeth. With a smile I proceed to explain that my sister is here for moral support. She beams approvingly and comments on my attendance.

“I am glad to see you made it today; that’s great.”

I sense she is being condescending, but I feel euphoric and really don’t care. She begins the class with a speech on the subject of rehabilitation and then in unison we mechanically move through the planned exercises. My sister is enjoying the class. Throughout the session she comments to the instructor that these stretches feel great and she should do them more often after vigorous exercise. The physio is excited and promptly informs my sister about her own personal fitness program.

As for me, I am trying to avoid the royal blue crotch, but I am drawn to it like a magnet. I participate in the physio session half-heartedly, but my efforts are constantly interrupted by spasmodic releases of laughter.

The session finally ends and I am asked to stay behind. Still clutching my soft toy, I sense I am about to be reprimanded for bad behaviour. Instead, the physio doesn’t mention my intrusive laughter but my penalty is handed out with a triumphant smile.

“What day is it today?” she asks in a pleasant voice.

“Day Eight,” I reply.

“Before you return to your room I would like you to walk two laps around the ward with your sister, and I’ll pop in later to see how you went. Great work today, Georgina.”

With a smirk I reach for my trolley and slowly walk out of the room. My sister is waiting patiently in the corridor, a grin plastered on her face. I screw my face up and mumble something about the physio being on a power trip.

We head directly to my room while sharing the elation of our joint hilarity. Before entering my room pride takes a hold of me and I keep walking. My sister follows. We have to stop every 20 to 30 metres while I rest on the black seat built into the trolley. We are silent, and she can see I am worn out.

Feeling nauseous, I head for the safety of my room. As I feebly try to sit on the edge of the bed a wave of exhaustion rinses me from head to foot, and my body begins to tremble. I want to be alone.

My sister looks concerned, but I am too tired to speak. She asks if I need anything or whether she should seek out a nurse, but I just shake my head from side to side while struggling pathetically to enter the refuge of my bed. Tears fill my eyes. She leans over, pulls at the tightly tucked sheets and helps to make me comfortable.

Before leaving, my sister bends and kisses the top of my head. Her eyes are glassy. I gaze up at her reassuringly and manage a grateful smile. I want to tell her that I’ll be okay, that we had fun, that I love her and that I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed my head off.

But, instead, I turn my face away and stare out the window. The sky is empty, free of hot-air balloons.

This article first appeared in Ed#354 of The Big Issue

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