Image by Dawn Estrin, 2010.
(See also “The Impostors” by Sarah Kunstler.)
I didn’t mean to get high.
It started with a twinge in my shoulder. I’ve had bouts of lower back pain brought on by too much exercise after not enough of it, and the discomfort was similar, only this time it was in my shoulder. By the time I got home from work, the twinge had turned into a throb, like the muscles were flexing in the wrong direction. I took some aspirin, camped out on the couch, and waited for the pain to go away. But it didn’t go away. It got worse.
It was the strangest thing. I could move my arm and not feel a thing, but if I twisted it in a certain way, it sent spastic jolts up and down my arm. The weird thing about it was I hadn’t injured my shoulder, exerted myself during exercise, or even slept on it funny. I thought of one of my late grandfather’s favorite jokes:
A guy goes to the doctor. “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor looks him over. “Then don’t do that!”
So I didn’t do that, at least for a little while, but when I tried to get up from the couch the pain was crippling. I called my wife on the phone and told her my symptoms.
“Gee,” she said, “I hope you’re not having a heart attack.”
Oh shit. I thought of all the articles I’d read about guys having heart attacks and not realizing it, and causing all kinds of damage to their aorta in the process. I’d always wondered How can you have a heart attack and not know it? Was this what was happening to me? I didn’t know much about cardiac arrest, but I did know shooting pain in the left arm was one of the symptoms. But a heart attack? Really?
My family had a history of bad tickers. Both of my maternal grandparents died of strokes before my mother turned 16. I thought about the grandparents I never knew. I thought about my new marriage and young daughter and the boatload of money I spend on health insurance. That settled it. When my wife got home, I asked her to take me to the emergency room.
As soon as I stepped inside the hospital, the doubts came creeping back. There’s nothing wrong with me… I shouldn’t be here… The people in the waiting room are much worse off…
Except there was something wrong with me. By this time, I could barely move my arm. I held it pressed to my chest like it was broken. When the nurse who checked me in asked me to rank my pain from one to ten, I said five. Then he offered me some vicodin. I said, No thanks, and told him I’d wait until I saw the doctor. My wife admonished me for downplaying my pain.
I had my reasons. I hadn’t taken a single drug or drop of liquor in exactly nine months. In the time it takes to make a baby, the strongest thing that had passed my lips was a double espresso. I’d gone to countless meetings and listened to hundreds of people give advice on how to stay clean and sober, and there I was in the hospital where they were passing out pills like potato chips. It was a regular party in the ER, and my wife was urging me to jump right in. I felt deeply conflicted about all this, and I didn’t know what to do.
Cardiac cases get top priority at the ER, so before I could re-think my position on the vicodin, a German nurse whisked me away to a bed. After my wife helped me put on the gown, the German nurse came back with a sling for my arm. A Filipina nurse’s aide prepped me for the EKG and hooked me up to the machines. A male Filipino doctor fired questions at me about my symptoms. He was blunt in his assessment:
“I don’t think you’re having a heart attack, but I’m not taking any chances. So I’m going to give you some morphine, okay?”
I nodded, but on the inside, I felt like a guttersnipe in a Charles Dickens novel, begging thanks and weeping gratitude. Bless you, good sir. God bless you!
A Filipino nurse took my blood, plugged me into the IV, monitored by vitals on the flight deck. Every few minutes he’d come by to see how I was doing. Frankly, I was annoyed. I’d never had morphine before, and I wanted to enjoy the ride, not answer a million questions. It’s not like I’d dropped acid and the LSD was going to come on like gangbusters. And then the morphine came on like gangbusters.
There was nothing gradual about it. I’ve used the word “rush” to describe passing into an altered state, but none of those experiences came close to this. It felt like a wave passing through me, a slow-motion current that flowed through my body and went streaming upward. When it reached my head, I felt flush like a vessel that had been filled to the brim, only the substance was energy and I was overflowing with it. I expelled the excess through my mouth, nose, and eyeballs, and when that didn’t happen fast enough it took the top of my head clean off.
“You look better,” my wife said. “How do you feel?”
Why lie? My head was feeling amazingly kite-like. I was way, way up there without a hint of turbulence. Yet I could still think rationally, and speak lucidly.
“How does your arm feel?”
Strangely, my arm felt the same. While the rest of my body felt completely relaxed, the pain in my arm continued unabated. If anything, I felt more uncomfortable than before. I passed this information on to the Filipino nurse when he came back for an update. “Hmmm,” he said, “I’ll get you something stronger.”
I mentally retracted my previous annoyance with this very wise and generous man.
A Caucasian male x-ray tech took my x-rays. My brother is an x-ray tech, and I tried to make small talk, but carrying on a conversation was difficult. The words burbled through my head, but getting my mouth to cooperate was a different story. A Latino hospital administrator took my money, and a Latina education officer asked me about my drug use, which was nonexistent. I’d been waiting for someone to ask me this all night, and was eager to out myself.
“I’ve been clean and sober nine months,” which is a weird thing to brag about while loaded on morphine.
“Congratulations,” she said.
The nurse’s aide came back with good news, and by good news I mean Dilaudid.
If the morphine was a wave, the Dilaudid crept in like fog. Sneaky and cat feety. I didn’t feel it working its way through my body the way I’d felt the morphine. I didn’t feel anything at all. The pain didn’t go away. It was just gone.
A television mounted above my bed leaked bullshit, but the screen faced away from me so I didn’t have to watch it. I couldn’t hear the TV either, even though I knew it was on because it captivated my wife’s attention. It reminded me of the time I tried to carry on a conversation with my friends at a bar after drinking way too much cough syrup. I couldn’t hear a word they said, even when they shouted directly into my ear, yet I could discern with perfect clarity the lyrics blasting out of the juke box. Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame, you give love a bad name (a bad name).
At the time, this was undoubtedly true. I did give love a bad name, but now I was focused on the whole shot-through-the-heart thing. I tried to concentrate, but was distracted by the rush of water coursing through invisible pipes, the woman in the next room who sounded like she needed drugs more than I did, nurses coming and going, asking questions, giving instructions, their departure punctuated by the rattle of the curtains that partitioned the rooms. The curtains were fascinating, and worthy of further study. Decorated with gigantic purple dahlias, they undulated in an invisible breeze.
Me: Look at the dahlias, big purple dahlias…
My wife: They’re dandelions.
Me: But they’re so big. And purple.
My wife: They’re not purple, Jim, they’re blue.
I’m not accustomed to winning many arguments with my wife, and the prospect of prevailing while under the influence of morphine and Dilaudid, a combination a friend in Arkansas who has seen the inside of numerous ERs calls the “Snack Pack,” seemed dubious at best. Besides, I didn’t want to argue with my wife, who seemed more beautiful, caring, and patient by the minute. But I took photographs of the curtains, for documentation. (They’re blue.)
The Filipino doctor returned with the data from the EKG: I wasn’t having a heart attack. My heart was fine. He advised me to make an appointment with my general practitioner, and released me. By the time I signed all the paperwork, and changed back into my street clothes, it was well past three o’clock in the morning.
“How’s your pain?” my wife asked.
“You are something else.”
With one arm in a sling and another wrapped around my wife, my heart never felt better.
Jim Ruland is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount. He lives in San Diego with his wife the visual artist Nuvia Crisol Guerra.“Shot Through the Heart” first appeared in Razorcake Fanzine and is reprinted here with permission.