BEEP, BEEP, BEEP…
Ever so slowly, I began to register my surroundings. My ears kicked in first as my sluggish, tired body came awake. I heard the sound of the pulse oximetry monitor as it beeped away in the background, tugging me out of dreamland. Like most days, before I even managed to crack open my eyelids, I’d take account of my surroundings, listening to the world around me and mentally checking off the things I could hear to determine where I was.
Someone wheeled a rickety cart down the hallway, its wheels spinning and squeaking, as she pushed it to its final destination. Across the hall, someone chatted outside a room. Close to me, the ever-present sounds of the equipment beeped and buzzed while monitoring my oxygen and heart rhythm.
All these sounds together could only mean one thing.
I was in the hospital—still.
Most kids had a favorite grandmother’s house, or a special friend they couldn’t get enough of—I had Memorial Regional. It had been my home away from home since I was an infant.
It was definitely not the same.
Home was quiet and warm.
The hospital bustled with noise at every God-given hour of the day, regardless of whether the sun or the moon was currently occupying the sky.
Staying here also felt like spending a night in a meat locker. I’d learned through my many years here that heat bred infection, which is why nurses buried patients in blankets rather than cranked up the furnace. Standing barely five and a half feet on my tiptoes, I weighed a little over a hundred pounds. No amounts of blankets could ever keep me warm. I seriously loved heaters.
I rubbed my chest as I took a labored breath though my lungs. It crackled slightly as I exhaled. Biting down on my lip, I tried to ignore it, focusing on my one and only goal for the day.
Going home today. I’m going home today, I chanted.
My eyelids reluctantly lifted, my vision blurry at first until the room came into view. Nothing had changed since I fell asleep last night. I saw the same boring, lackluster eggshell-colored walls and the same white board listing my nurse on shift with a little happy face drawn next to her name.
Grace was working this morning. She was young, around my age, and she’d just recently graduated with her nursing degree. She loved happy faces, hearts, and anything else she could draw with a dry-erase marker. She reminded me of a Disney princess. Even in scrubs, she was over-the-top girlie. I swore, one of these days, she was going to break out into song, summon an entire forest full of small animals, and perform a musical, complete with dancing squirrels and singing larks.
But all that would have to wait for another day because I was leaving—today.
What was supposed to be an in-and-out routine procedure had turned out to be another prolonged hospital stay. I was more than ready to get home to my own bed. I hated hospital beds. They were uncomfortable, hard, and never felt right.
Seriously, who makes these things? Do they actually test the beds out? I know the beds are supposed to be functional, but really, they could add some padding.
I’d arrived at the hospital two weeks ago, expecting to stay a couple of days, to switch out the battery in my pacemaker, but as always, things hadn’t gone as planned, and I’d ended up in the hospital—again.
Story of my life.
But not today. Today, I was free—well, as free as my life would allow.
I was born with a heart defect. Basically, my heart was larger than it was supposed to be. It made breathing and mostly everything else difficult because my heart had to work ten times harder than normal. In a nutshell, this little defect controlled my entire life.
It was also slowly killing me, which was why I couldn’t wait to break free of this prison. When you were living your life on borrowed time, every second you had to spend watching the days pass by through a hospital room window was one moment less you had to be doing something meaningful.
In my sheltered life, my idea of meaningful might be defined as something completely lackluster and conventional, but at least it wouldn’t be spent here.
I slowly exhaled another wheezy breath out through my mouth at the exact moment Grace decided to walk through the door.
“Good morning!” she nearly sang.
She gave me her dazzling white smile that was entirely too perky for the ungodly early hour. Her dark curls bobbed behind her as she bounced over to the computer terminal and began her morning ritual.
“Morning, Grace. How are you?” I asked.
“I’m fantastic! The sun is shining, and the birds are singing! My favorite patient is being discharged today! It’s a fantastic day!”
Wow, two fantastics in one breath.
The corner of my mouth curved into a smile, mimicking hers. “You’re extra chipper today. Any particular reason?” I inquired, knowing she had mentioned going on a special date with her boyfriend last night.
They’d been dating for two years, and she’d been hinting at an engagement for a while. My guess was her boyfriend finally caught on.
Grace played dumb. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She held her left hand up to her cheek as she shook her head back and forth.
There, on her ring finger, was a perfect, dazzling white diamond ring that matched her sparkling eyes.
“You got engaged! What a surprise!” I exclaimed.
It wasn’t a surprise though. She’d been talking about it since I had arrived.
I really want to be happy for her—no, scratch that. I am happy for her. She deserves all the happiness in the world.
My life is not horrible. It’s just different, I reminded myself.
“Thank you! It was so sweet. He got down on one knee in his suit—on the beach, no less—and told me I was the only woman he’d ever want to share his life with, and then he pulled out this ring. It was so romantic.”
“It sounds beautiful,” I said.
She began to jot down numbers while checking me over. Her brows suddenly furrowed together, causing me to become alarmed.
“What is it?” I asked.
“What? Oh, nothing. I don’t think it’s anything serious. Your pulse ox reading is just a little low.” She bent forward with a stethoscope and listened to my lungs for a moment. “Let me just update Dr. Marcus, and he’ll be in to chat with you in a bit.”
I nodded absently as she scooted out quickly, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
Looking down at my pointer finger which was attached to the machine that monitored my oxygen levels, I sighed. The reading wasn’t terribly low—at least, not enough to trigger an alarm thankfully. I let out a small groan and slumped my head forward in defeat. I knew what this meant—something wasn’t right, and Grace hadn’t wanted to say anything because it was now above her pay grade.
So, now, I had to just sit here and wait—alone.
Sitting around in a hospital, day in and day out, was tedious. There was only so much TV I could watch, so many books I could read, before my head felt like it might explode. Sometimes, the craving for human interaction could become so intense that I’d feel physically ill.
My mother had been here every day, and her company meant the world to me, but the desire and need to interact
with someone my own age was overwhelming. I just wanted someone who hadn’t helped me go to the bathroom or didn’t watch my every move with anxiety, afraid my next breath might land me back in the hospital.
The book my mother had been reading—something academic, a text book no doubt—was lying on the cushion of the worn blue chair in the corner, forgotten along with her jacket and a notebook. She must have stayed late and left after I’d fallen asleep. She usually didn’t stay past seven, but she had been desperately trying to finish her syllabus for the next semester so that she’d have it done before I returned home. She would always be so paranoid whenever I was discharged from a hospital stay. She feared I would have some sort of rebound and end up back where I started—laying back in that room waiting for my next escape. Therefore, in her mind, my need for supervision doubled, tripled even. She’d end up almost killing herself, trying to get everything done in preparation for my return.
My mother, Molly Buchanan, was a religious studies professor at the local community college. She was probably one of the most eclectic women on the planet. When I was young, I’d once asked her about why she taught religion, but we didn’t go to church. She’d smiled sweetly and told me that she loved learning about religions so much that she couldn’t pick just one, so she never had. It had made sense to me when I was a naïve child, but now, it just made me laugh. I’d decided years ago after being one of her students that my mom was just overly curious about the behavior of humans and there was no better way to learn the hows and whys of people than through their religions.
I spent what was hopefully going to be my last morning in the hospital eating less than stellar eggs and toast from a tray while I haphazardly flipped through the fourteen channels on TV. After catching up on the news and watching a rerun of Boy Meets World, I decided it was time to pack.
Careful of the hep-lock buried in the crook of my arm, I slowly got up and made my way to the en-suite bathroom.
I brushed my teeth and attempted to throw my long blonde hair into a ponytail. I then gathered all my toiletries and placed them in the bag my mom had brought. After returning to the room, I threw the small bag into the suitcase by the bed. Several other items also went in, and after a few minutes, I was ready to go.
I could hear my bed calling out for me, whispering my name. Uninterrupted sleep was something that was seriously taken for granted by those who were lucky enough to enjoy it. Right now, I was exhausted—probably more exhausted than I should be, but I ignored that because I was going home.
After everything in my room had been tidied up, I settled back down to wait out the day. Whenever a nurse told you that the doctor would be with you in a bit, she really meant that the doctor would be in sometime today, so you shouldn’t hold your breath. Seeing as it had been less than an hour since Grace disappeared from my sight, I was quite surprised when Dr. Marcus suddenly appeared at my door. Clad in blue scrubs, he ran his large hands through his salt-and-pepper locks.
Having adjusted back to teaching day classes, my mom had finished teaching her one summer course for the day, and she was now sitting in her usual spot in the corner. She was deeply immersed in her book from earlier, scribbling down notes, but she instantly perked up when my longtime handsome doctor came in.
He took a few steps, hesitated slightly, and then walked the remaining distance to the bed. He seemed uneasy, and his eyes were roaming around the room as if they were desperately trying to lock on to anything but me. Finally, he met my gaze, and immediately, I knew he had bad news.
“Hey, Lailah,” he said.
“Hi, Dr. Marcus.”
“Listen, kid—” he started.
I interrupted him, “I’m not a kid anymore.”
“Right. I keep forgetting. Twenty-two. Crazy.”
Dr. Marcus had been caring for me since I was a child. I’d gone to other hospitals for more complicated procedures, and other doctors and specialists had seen me over the years, but I’d always been under the care of Dr. Marcus. Besides my mother, he was the closest thing I had to family.
“I’ve looked at your levels, and it’s not happening today, Lailah.”
“Why?” I whispered.
He arched his brow, giving me a pointed stare.
“My breathing,” I answered my own question.
He nodded. “Yes, your breathing isn’t good—I can tell you that standing across the room and your heart is beating irregularly. I’m sorry. I know you wanted to hit the road today, but until we get you in better shape, I can’t let that happen.”
I turned to my mother, who was staring at me with a sad, concerned expression. Our eyes met, and she gave me a hesitant smile. She wouldn’t fight him. I knew that from experience. She followed all doctor instructions to the letter. When it came to my health, she wasn’t willing to take even an iota of a chance.
“Okay,” I said, turning back to Dr. Marcus, as I tried to fight back the tears. “I guess it’s time for bad food and daytime TV for me once again.”
“I’ll make sure they send up extra dessert,” he said with a wink.
His focus then went to my mother and I watched her rise from her chair to join him across the room. Huddled together, I could hear very little of what they were saying, but from what I managed to catch, I was going to be stuck within these walls for quite a bit longer.
Freedom had suddenly vanished before my eyes.
Back to jail I go.