I had come back from the semi-weekly five mile hike with Jose, relaxed with coffee and magazines at Starbucks and was blithely packing up goodies for the volunteer picnic at the Dominguez Rancho Adobe Museum. Before heading to that event, I was going to have dim sum in Chinatown with my friend Linda, her husband and niece. It was basically, a stress-free morning with fun things to look forward to.
I was drying off in the shower when I suddenly felt a strong, pressing pain in the middle of my chest. At first I thought it was a muscle spasm, then realized that weren’t many muscles in that part of my chest that I would have taxed by raising a towel over my head, so I looked up heart attack symptoms on the Internet. Some of them seemed to mirror what I was feeling: uncomfortable pressure that went away but came back again with a bit of lightheadedness.
I went into the kitchen and told Jolene and Hiro what had happened. In the back of my mind, I thought I would just tell them and then drive myself to Little Company of Mary in Torrance. She offered to drive me but was anticipating guests in a few minutes, so Hiro was dispatched to take me to an emergency room. I figured that Torrance was an unnecessary trip so he looked up hospitals in the area and we went to Brotman Medical Center on Venice Boulevard. This turned out to be a better choice because it happens to be walking distance from downtown Culver City and my favorite restaurant, Tender Greens. But there was much to do before I could think about sitting down to a steak hot plate with spinach, hazelnut, and goat cheese salad.
The ER waiting room was far from packed, but the place seemed sparsely staffed. The two or three people ahead of me appeared indigent, if not homeless or mentally ill, a motif that was to continue as I witnessed the travails of fellow patients that afternoon. But I filled out the necessary forms and was finally admitted.
We went into the triage area and they took my temperature and asked me a few questions. They led me to a bed and sent Hiro to wait outside. A technician took an EKG and told me it would be several hours so I sent Hiro home.
Souvenirs of a summer's day: I looked like a UPS package when they were through with me and was still finding EKG stickers on myself when I got home.
As odious as cell phones can be, having one was a boon that day for all of the patients in my room. The exception to this was that I could not reach anyone at the Adobe to tell them that I wasn't a total flake and had a really good reason not to show up with my two dozen deviled eggs and a pan of brownies stenciled with the Dominguez cattle brand in confectioner's sugar. But I was able to leave a couple of messages and had to eventually let it go.
Being in a hospital bed can be frightening when you don’t know what is going to happen. A doctor told me that they wanted to take some tests, so I settled in. Thankfully, after catching up on Oprah Magazine’s summer reading article, I began to get rather distracted by all that was going on around me.
After about an hour or so, I was taken away for a CAT scan, which was set up in a temporary trailer because they happened to be repairing the one in the hospital. It was very strange being carted off in a wheelchair to the trailer, although I was happy to go outside, if even for a second after being cooped up in the hospital during what turned out to be a beautiful summer afternoon. I asked the radiologist if he ever wondered why there were so few windows in hospitals and he said that it would make patients feel better if there were.
I had a CAT scan years ago but don't remember it as quite this scary. You have to be injected with a medium that allows them to photograph the organs in question, which in this case, were my lungs - birth control can cause blood clots in that area and they were trying to rule that out as the cause for my chest pain. I had to sign a release saying it was alright to use this medium, which contained iodine. Apparently, many people have an allergy to this element, which is present also in a lot of seafood.
The radiologist told me the side effects to watch for after he injected me with the medium through my IV. Unlike most side effects that seem to trickle in slowly or not at all, these hit me all at once as the liquid took effect and I slid into the CAT scan machine: a metallic taste in my mouth and a hot feeling in my pelvic area that made me think I had wet myself. Thankfully, it was over quickly.
The radiologist wheeled me back to the room, where I was to wait until all my test results were in and they would decide whether I needed to be admitted or not. I began to chat with my assigned nurse, Ani, who was reattaching me to the EKG machine. She was from Iran, a culture that piques my curiosity when I drive down Westwood Boulevard and peer into the cozy restaurants or listen to the melodic cadence of Farsi while shopping at Sunlight Gems or King’s Beads.
I asked Ani what her favorite restaurant in Westwood’s largely Persian neighborhood was and she lit up with recognition. She named a couple of places, Shamshiri Grill and Baran. She said her favorite thing to eat at home – khoresh fesenjan , which is chicken stewed in pomegranate juice- was not her favorite thing to eat at a restaurant. That would be kebabs, which she said were difficult to make. Being another single girl who leaves the intricacies of the grill to the menfolk, I agreed.
Ani also told me that restaurant review sites like Zagat and Yelp give bad reviews to the Iranian restaurants that Iranians find the most authentic and high marks to the places that these American transplants don't think are very good. I’m sure it happens with most ethnic restaurants, many of whom are trying to cater to an American palate, but it was eye-opening that someone would actually give voice to this fact.
I had recently read "Persepolis," a graphic novel of the Islamic Revolution by Marjane Satrapi. In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was watching the story of this upheaval unfold on the news, children my age including Satrapi were living – and dying through it in Tehran. To me at that time, the turmoil of Iran seemed to be enacted solely by adults. It was shattering to learn that kids whose main concerns ought to have been schoolwork, friends, and staying out of mischief were also going through the takeover of the government by extremists, bloodshed and thwarted rebellion.
While I was frolicking with "It's a Small World" at Disneyland, the world of Satrapi and her classmates was getting smaller too.
I asked Ani how long it had been since she visited Iran and she said she went home three years ago. She said it was really awful how she and other Iranians were treated coming and going and that friends of hers were denied entry to Iran when officials there found them on Facebook.
She said that her parents were going to be visiting Los Angeles in a couple of weeks and that she had just signed the final paperwork to set her American citizenship process in motion. She will take her test for citizenship in about a year and hopefully, would be able to bring her parents over as residents in another year after that.
I asked her what was on the exam and we giggled over remembering who the presidents were in World Wars I and II, who wrote “Poor Richard’s Almanck,” and the top two cabinet members in line to take over the presidency should President Obama become unable to do the job.
I told her about a recent blog entry where I had admired the eye candy of past American statesmen and presidents on American currency and she owned that yes, Alexander Hamilton was a hottie, and that she always hoards her ten dollar bills. I told her that I had always had a thing for Thomas Jefferson, whom she should remember as the third president of the United States. It's sure to be on the test.
By this time, the beds that Ani had been changing with clean linens while we talked were now being inhabited by new patients. When I was first taken to the examining room, an older gentleman was on his cell phone, roaring at someone on the other end. Later, he ate his lunch from a pile of Styrofoam takeout containers that were obviously not holding hospital food. Finally, he was wheeled away by a police officer.
His place was taken about an hour later by a worried-looking young woman and her much more serene mother. Although they drew the semicircular curtain around her bed area when her doctor arrived, I could not help but overhear some of the girl’s complaints, which had something to do with her chronically swollen feet. I made out the words “depression,” “Lasix,” and “God.”
I offhandedly mentioned to the technician who connected me to my EKG that I was hungry and was looking forward to eating at Tender Greens once I was released. He said that he had tasted part of a colleague’s meal from the restaurant and liked it. Minutes later, Ani appeared with a fistful of snacks: a plain ham sandwich on wheat with packets of mayonnaise and mustard, individually wrapped Chips Ahoy cookies, graham crackers, a banana, and one of those hospital-issue cups of cranberry juice.
I tried to only eat just the sandwich and drink the cranberry juice, but they only got my appetite going and I could not stop there. I compromised with the banana and one graham cracker. Even if this were to be my last meal, I would never let it be said that I ate Chips Ahoy on my deathbed. While I thought ruefully of the picnic I was missing, the food was restoring because I had nothing to eat since about 10 a.m. and it was almost 2:30 p.m.
Another new patient had shown up while I was eating, another older gentleman who I surmised had run afoul of the law several times. He looked like an ancient biker with longish hair and a beard. While being examined behind his curtain, he revealed that he had been a drug dealer, but how recently I could not tell. On his cell phone, he left messages for his regular physician and his lawyer.
Although the staff sounded attentive to his needs, during the one moment he was left alone, I heard a barrage of obscenities followed by, “I was born here, now I’m gonna die here.” This was countered by the mother of the girl with swollen feet, who calmly said, “If you do die, you’re going to go to heaven.” He did not respond.
I’ve had a few close shaves in my lifetime, but I always seem to be one of those patients with whom modern medicine cannot find anything the matter. I tested negative for any sort of cardiac issues, but it was recommended that I return immediately if it happened again. I will also have to find a cardiologist to take more exacting stress tests that the hospital was not equipped to perform. In a blur, I signed off on various forms, made my co-payment and flung myself out into the summer sunshine of downtown Culver City toward Tender Greens.
My kingdom for a cup of gazpacho. Hours before, I thought I had given it and bought the farm.
As I carried my flat iron steak – medium rare, always – mint lemonade, and gazpacho that I’ve been craving all summer to a table, I mused over what I would want for my last meal. I guess I would have to think about it, but I have to say that this combination comes pretty close.
Were I at death's door, I would still insist on medium rare.
I fell to my habit of mining bits of goat cheese out of the salad to eat with the Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. I dunked the uber-crouton – a slim oval of hard toasted garlic bread made satisfyingly greasy with olive oil – into the rusty gazpacho. I celebrated dodging a bullet – hopefully. And as good as the ham sandwich in the hospital tasted, I was glad that it ended up only being an hors d'œuvre, not the beginning of a whole new diet of hospital food.
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