This is part two of an essay I wrote a year ago. The first part can be found here.
A routine checkup the summer before I turn 10 reveals that my heart is beating at 40-45 beats per minute when I am awake, 30-35 at rest. A couple weeks later, only days after fifth grade starts, I check into Milwaukee Children’s Hospital for another surgery.
Food is cut off at midnight. My surgery is scheduled for early afternoon. It gets pushed back one hour, two, and by the third I am begging my mother for food.
A nurse gives a shot to relax me. I know it will sting but then it will be done. I’ve been poked a lot in my life and needles are routine. But this one burns and my thigh cramps up. “It didn’t relax me!” I shout, angry and ravenous.
They wheel me down to surgery a half hour later, my leg still stinging. The anesthesiologist tells me to start counting backwards from 100. The last number I remember is 97.
I wake up with an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose, IVs in hands that are secured on boards. I feel claustrophobic and try to rip it off. The nurses substitute oxygen prongs for the mask.
I am fed a steady diet of film-lined beef broth, watery applesauce and Jello. “Look, today it’s green Jello!” My mother uncovers the tray and shows me, falsely cheerful.
I hate Jello.
I share a room with another girl. She is younger than I am and has cancer. She receives a bouquet of balloons; tautly inflated circles, silver and full of helium. Strawberry Shortcake and the Care Bears smile at me from the foot of her bed.
I want balloons, too.
My brother picks out a cheerful My Little Pony balloon and hands it to me proudly. When I get home and tack the deflated balloon to the back of my bedroom door.
I wonder what happened to the little girl with the big bunch of balloons.
The nurses make me take deep breaths and cough to keep my lungs clear. My whole body aches from surgery and coughing is painful. Interns file into my curtained room each day, voyeurs of my medical freak show.
I tell my mother, “I hate Dr. Little! It’s his fault I feel horrible!”
I go back to school a couple weeks later. My classmates have created beautiful, hand-crafted get-well cards. But people fear what they don’t understand and avoid things they fear. Children are no different. Now I am an oddity that, coupled with my shyness, leaves me with only one friend.
The doctors have warned my parents that the pacemaker wires can be pulled out of my heart with aggressive activity. My father forbids me to hang on monkey bars, ride roller-coasters, go water skiing… I’m independent and strong willed, but I honor my father’s wishes.
And I don’t feel like a normal child.