Baba’s Heart

She sits peacefully in the hospital chair with a look of hope and recovery in her eyes. She wears her light blue hospital gown as comfortably as a housedress and proudly shows me her arms freed from all the IVs. She boastfully tells me how she ate chicken soup that morning and how she spoke to Rosa on the phone, who called her directly in the hospital room. My grandmother is excited about going home tomorrow. We discuss how she needs to hurry up and get home to make my grandfather more chicken stew.

Liz, the clinical nurse comes in and we exchange polite greetings. She tells me my grandmother’s potassium levels are dangerously low; it’s not good for her heart. I translate for my grandmother. I tell her that she needs potassium to heal after the surgery. They need to inject this into her IV. She doesn’t understand why she needs this extra potassium. She says she eats a banana every day. Liz explains that she has not been eating regular food for a week and that now her levels are low; she needs the intravenous dosage for her heart.

Liz warns my grandmother that the medicine may burn or sting. “Some patients say that it hurts a lot,” she says as she pushes the drugs into the abandoned IV plug. My grandmother starts to wince and wiggle in her chair; she wretches her neck and shuts her eyes tightly like fists. She is moaning and then she is yelling and pleading for the pain to stop. My 78-year old grandmother, a strong-willed Russian woman, is sitting in this hospital chair begging Liz to stop the pain she is injecting directly into her body.

This one minute is standing still long after it has already passed. This one minute that starts a series of events that will stamp themselves onto my memory and loiter my dreams much longer than necessary.

Liz stops the medicine. I am telling my grandmother that she stopped it, but she cannot hear me, she is screaming that it hurts. I am telling her louder that she stopped it; I am walking towards her. My grandmother seems weakened and defeated by the whole incident. Like a shock treatment totally altering a person, she came out of the experience demanding to know “Why?”

“Why do I need this?” she keeps repeating. Like a confused child who will persist to ask a question until someone answers him, she keeps telling every nurse and doctor that just this morning she was feeling wonderful. She had just had some soup; she had walked around and done exercises. “Why are they doing this to me?” I continue to translate Liz’s medical jargon into Russian for my grandmother. I hold her hand and tell her to breathe through it. I try to give her my strength.

Liz comes in with a warm pack for my grandmother’s arm. It takes half an hour for the pain to go away and then my grandmother has to take four potassium chalky oversized pills. There’s not enough liquid to help my grandmother’s dry mouth get these pills down. They lodge themselves in the base of her diaphragms and time slowly and painfully digests them.

Within minutes there is a rapid beeping sound and Liz runs into the room. She is asking how my grandmother is feeling and quickly tells her that they need to get her into bed. They need to take a picture of her heart they are telling her. I tell her they need to do an EKG. Liz is asking me to ask my grandmother what hurts. My grandmother tells me that she is not feeling well. She was fine until that potassium. Liz explains that the pain was too strenuous on her heart.

Liz is anxious; she is rearranging the idling chairs and carts in the room, making room for the bulky metal EKG cart. My grandmother is ordered to lie down right away; this is an emergency. “It’s OK,” I tell her. “Your heart is just making them concerned.”

Back up arrives in three more with a cardiologist already on her way. “She needs to lie down right away!” they are echoing – one over the other. “A-Fib, D-Fib, Tacking,” a string of words that every medical drama has taught me to hate.

Three of us get her into bed, moving tubes aside, careful not to hurt her repairing stomach. Two nurses begin to pull down her gown to put the sticky pads on for the EKG. She is saying that it hurts. She is asking why this is happening. “It is not my fault,” she says. “I was fine before the potassium shot.”

I am holding her hand and brushing her hair off her face. I am fixing her gown so that her breasts are covered. I shove my way between the bed and the wall and stand there reassuring her in a way that makes me feel powerful and powerless all the same. She is getting angry and the pain is both intense and confusing. The faces hovering above her are exasperating her.

I watch the readings on the devices above her head. Her blood pressure goes from dangerously high to dangerously low. More medical staff enters the room; I move further and further against the wall and the bed is crushing me.

Everything starts to bother my grandmother – the oxygen tube, the heart monitor, all the IVs, her swollen legs, and all the blaring voices. She wants to know what each beep signals and what each medicine does. They order more blood work and another IV. She refuses; she tells them that they just put a new one in this morning. There is no more skin color left on her arm, just a swollen vessel in shades of magenta and navy. I see the color drain from her face as she gives up the fight a little. She feels defeated and stifled; an unexpected glitch in her healing path.

She says she wants them to stop everything. “No more!” she yells. She finally uses her English to yell out “I am dead.”

I take her hand and tell her that isn’t acceptable; there are many people working to get her better right now. I am trying to fill a role of a mother, a friend, a cheerleader, but I am a granddaughter – terrified and worried.

The new IV needs to be put in right away, they are demanding. My grandmother acquiesces. She recognizes the nurse who inserted her last IV and says that he did a good job. She lets him proceed. She praises his work again.

The new IV means more injections – many stinging and then cleaning out the IV. They are trying to control her heart rate. A normal heart rate is 75 beats per minute; hers is 180 right now. They use a stethoscope to try to listen but say that they cannot hear anything; it is too fast they are saying. They are paging the cardiologist again. More medicine is injected into the IV.

All the white coats are gathering around the bed. They are clearly nervous and confused. They compare numbers and charts and keep running the EKG machine. They scream at my grandmother. It’s loud in the room and since she doesn’t speak English they speak louder. They ask her where it hurts but she doesn’t know where. “It hurts everywhere,” she says.

Beepers keep going off and the intercom is paging more people – they wheel in a crash cart and attach her to that monitor. I cannot keep my eyes off this TV image of my grandmother’s erratically beating heart. I speak softer and calmer. I translate everything they are saying. I tell her to breathe.

My grandfather is a statuesque figure on the chair in the background. He has faith in medicine and tells her to calm down and let them do what they need to do. He seems unusually calm, but adrenaline and denial are an interesting force together. He starts to tell me that this is a good hospital. He says to give them space to work.

My grandfather loves my grandmother in the way that I imagine a man loves his wife after 58 years. A love that transcends a lifetime begun together in another continent half a century ago. In Kiev they got married. They had two children – a boy and a girl. They worked two jobs each and afforded a rare two-room apartment and a small VW bug. They immigrated to America in the first wave of Russian immigrants in 1976.

In America they built a second life filled with American grandchildren who they struggled to understand. My grandfather survived throat cancer and open-heart surgery. He speaks with an artificial voice box and has a permanent stoma in his neck. After his quadruple bypass, the blood thinner they gave him caused him to start bleeding out of the hole in his neck. But this man can build, reconstruct and fix anything – cars to 3D Jigsaw puzzles. He doesn’t drinks regular water – only coffee with milk and sugar during the day and sweet red wine out of the gallon jug with dinner.

Now this strong man of 5’7” is watching my grandmother in her bed surrounded with doctors and nurses pulling tubes, injecting medicines, and piling on more IV bags onto the pole. Just this morning she was IV-free. She was going home tomorrow. Now this mess. Her heart was beating too fast and there was no pattern. She wasn’t responding to the medicine. Her blood pressure was dangerously irregular. The cardiologist arrives and studies the scary EKG printouts. She prescribes another medicine – first one dosage for 6 hours and then another smaller dose for the next 6 hours.

For two hours they inject and measure. They take her blood pressure on the left arm and then the right. I help them Velcro and unvelcro the cuff. They use the machine to check the blood pressure and then they do it manually. My grandmother keeps asking me what the readings are. I answer her truthfully each time.

Finally her heart slows down and regulates. She lays in bed drained and sounds defeated and resentful with each word. She just can’t understand what just happened. She was fine this morning she keeps saying.

“Maybe it’s because your husband was in the room,” Liz jokes.

My grandfather gets up from the chair and fixes my grandmother’s blanket. She asks him to twist her socks into position and he does, careful not to touch her swollen legs. He walks over to her head and leans into her. He says he wants to see if she is warm. He gently puts his lips to her forehead and smoothes her hair into place. He kisses her forehead, the same skin he has known for 60 years.

His eyes water. “He’s my number one,” she says to whoever is still listening.

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