Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I’m going to jump right from sorrow to babies.

After a year of heart medication my ejection fraction went from 27 to normal, and I was less tired and less breathless.

Dr. Heart took me off the pills to see if my heart would pump well without assistance. I had to wait for six months before getting another MUGA scan to measure my heart function. Near the end of it I was getting insanely impatient.

The glaring green hands on my biological clock were killing me, but I had to wait for the green light.

Nurse Heart makes fun of me now for being so impatient. I thought Dr. Heart was slow-playing me, so I called to bump my test up a month. My plea worked.

All the anxiety in the world didn’t change the results of my test. (There goes the straightforward mind-body connection theory.) My heart passed and we threw the condoms in the garbage. I wish I had cut them up into little pieces and then burned them in a cathartic bonfire, or at least mailed them to a country with limited access to birth control; it would have made a great story.

We were lucky: we got right to it and got pregnant within three months of trying. I felt amazing. The shift from cautious to all-out-cardio quickly killed my breakable -complex.

And then I was back to fragile with a teeny tiny embryo in my belly. I was happy and comfortable; I couldn’t ask for anything more. My life was perfect. I didn’t feel completely healthy when I stopped taking the heart medication, but as soon as that embryo burrowed into my uterus lining, I started feeling better and better.

But it was a long journey. I was still classified as sick, because I was diagnosed with Fibro, and I still sometimes think this is the story of somebody with life-long health issues.

It got worse – scary worse – before I woke up in the hospital as a new person. I’ll tell you all about the bad stuff soon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

You're Special: Crib Notes

This is the second part in a series.

I collect money all day long. Every once in a while, almost everyone I speak with in a day lies about making a payment. That day was Friday.

First thing in the morning I was bullied mafia-wife-style by a real estate agent who had already lied twice about paying her bill. My next few clients were really mean. And then there was the young woman who had not paid her bill since she had become a client, had already lied about paying it three times, and still wanted her service back.

It went on and on all morning, and it started again after lunch. By mid-afternoon I was tense and grumpy. There was no doubt in my mind that the next client would try to sell me a load of shit, too. Natalie, I think, was the next client. She told me the last guy promised to credit some charges, but didn’t do it.

Yeah right, Natalie, I thought. That’s a common lie. Her account didn’t show that promise, so I assumed she was just another Friday client.

Well, I asked the guy who talked to her last, and it turns out I was wrong. Natalie wasn’t lying.

It took me half a day to throw out my basic philosophy about humans. I’m pretty committed to the fact that people are basically good, and every other day last week solidified that fact. Four hours of shitty people trying to take advantage of the system and get what they want without doing what they should have and I forgot all about the other guys.

Specialists must have heard lies, too. People lie to doctors for all different reasons: guilt, fear, stupidity and ignorance are just a few.

I bet they have days filled with lie after lie. You’d be screwed if you were the first appointment after lunch. But it’s one thing to assume a client is lying about money, something else entirely to assume a patient is lying; the stakes are much different.

So how do you cut through all of the human bullshit that even specialists can’t cure to get the treatment you need?

It’s hit or miss, truthfully. There’s no foolproof way. I know that sucks, considering we may be talking about life or death. There is one thing that may help if you can pull it off when you’re sick and dead tired.

Be prepared, but take his cues. I’ve read articles that insist writing a list of symptoms is the best way to get better. Those articles encourage you to take the list to your appointments. Some even suggest making a copy for the doctor to keep.

Here’s the thing about that approach: it works for some doctors and not for others. A doctor told me that patients who walk through the door with lists are considered hypochondriacs or liars by some.

If you run into that doctor, especially on a bad day, you’re not going to get what you need if you start your relationship by reading from a list. So, write a list, but keep it in your pocket. Concentrate on connecting with the doctor as a human.

Ask your advocate to help you remember the symptoms if you have a bad memory. Only take the list out as a last resort.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


The longer I was sick, the harder it was to imagine being well. Remembering healthy Jenn was more imagination than memory because I was so far from it, in both time and space.

As I began to resign to a life of understanding simple ideas only after a replay, I pulled away from my family and friends. Only one person believed that my brain symptoms were caused by my heart: my family doctor. Dr. Heart thought it had more to do with Fibro than anything.

So I thought that even if my heart was fixable, I would still be stupid.

I couldn’t write when I couldn’t connect one simple idea to another. The skill I had was gone; and my dream was out of reach. I was heartbroken.

At a certain point, after being lost in a story for a long time and finding no way to get my thoughts across, I realised that it was out of my control. I couldn’t write well enough to fake it with good editing. My brain just didn’t work the way it had before I was sick.

Unintentional-existential-crisis-mode kicked in. Who is a writer who can’t write? Useless.

Okay, if a wordless writer is useless, I reasoned, then I have to become someone else. My parents always told me that I could be whatever I want to be. Who did I want to be?

I didn’t want to be sick, but my world was defined by cardiomyopathy and Fibro. They were part of the new Jenn. I wasn’t sure if I could be more. And as I was trying to figure out my new life and my new mind, I couldn’t connect with the world.

Never mind the fact that I felt like I was living under water while my friends and family were living on land; change is hard for relationships. Ambiguity is worse. When there is nothing to confide in people, it’s hard to connect.

Phoebe: Want to go to a rock concert tonight?

Jenn: I don’t know.

Phoebe: Are you interested in rock climbing?

Jenn: I don’t know.

I was so focused on making a new life for myself, I never imagined that I would wake up in the hospital one day pretty much back to normal. My mind couldn’t dream up a story with an ending like that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Just Jenn

I spent a lot of time in that sleep study lab because it was the Heart Function Clinic by day.

Every month for three months, and then every other month after that, I walked through the hospital doors with my heart in my throat, wondering if it would be the month I got the bad news. I thought I'd have to have surgery. It never occurred to me that the bad news was over.

They kept track of my weight because swelling is a bad sign with cardiomyopathy. After I weighed-in at the start of each appointment, they hooked me up to the ECG machine.

I had to get undressed in one of the sleep labs, put a hospital gown on backwards and lay down on the bed. When Nurse Heart came in, she would stick about five suction-cup-thingies on my chest, stomach and ankles, and then plug them into the wires that fed my heartbeat to the fancy machine.

If the printout looked like a mountain range with peaks destroyed by a crashing plane, then I still had PVCs. As I laid on the bed, waiting for Nurse Heart, I would wish the pilot had finally checked his engines before boarding his plane, but those flat mountains stayed with me for a while.

And then I’d have to tell Nurse Heart how many pillows I slept on and if I had been out of breath enough at night to wake up. She would take my blood pressure while I sat on the bed, and then again when I stood up.

Dr. Heart would listen to my chest, check my ankles for swelling and ask me the same questions.

They were both really good at soothing my fears when I was brave enough to talk about them. Even if there wasn’t an answer, Dr. Heart had a way of focusing on the now and on the good possibilities.

He was never impatient with me or dismissive. I didn’t know him before the PVC discovery, but I think he’s the kind of guy who would have treated me with respect no matter what.

Cardiomyopathy changed the way many people treated me. Suddenly, I wasn’t wasting their time.

Since I was diagnosed, doctors have been calm and sympathetic. The lab techs taking my blood, the receptionists at the cardiogram clinic and the volunteers at the Heart Function Clinic have all been extra-nice.

Friends and family members who knew about my heart got really serious about my health. The light well-that-sucks-but-at-least-you-won’t-die attitude was abruptly changed to an oh-shit-this-is-not-good attitude.

People were worried; people were just-in-case-nice. As in, just in case you die; just in case you’re life-changing sick.

I wanted to have a life outside of nice and away from the hospital. When I took off the gown and didn’t talk about it, I was just Jenn.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Downside of Health

I get a little nervous every time my heart skips a beat.

When I’m just sitting at my desk and my heart starts acting wonky like it did the other day, I start thinking about the worst case scenario.

What if my heart is messed up again? What if the fix was only temporary and not effective anymore?

If I knew that I was going to be sick again in a year or two I would live a bit differently.

I would go to Ireland this summer to see where my grandpa’s family came from. Then I would fly over to France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, and other cool countries in the area.

I would push myself harder on the treadmill, get to a run faster.

I would get a tattoo of a heart somewhere on my body. Maybe I should do that one anyway.

If I thought my sickness would kill me, I would quit my job to spend every day with my daughter, and my husband would hear cheesy love proclamations twice a day. Why can’t I do that now?

Knowing how hard it was to think when my heart was sick, I would get off my ass and re-write my second novel. I shouldn’t need the fear of losing my wits to do that. But I would be less afraid of looking like an idiot, and more afraid of losing my chance.

Here’s the thing: I could get sick again. It might not even be my heart next time. In fact, I will get sick eventually and die. But I’m feeling a little complacent these days. I’ve lost the edge that came with finally being healthy. Health is expected now, just two years after maybe never being healthy again.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Now and Then

Last night I went dancing for the first time in three years. It was so much fun, but definitely won’t become part of my weekly routine.

It’s never been my scene, and I really don’t fit in there now that I’m a new mom. When my friend and I first got to the bar there were two glasses on the dance floor. I picked them up and put them on the ledge.

Instead of cheering for the girl who climbed on the table to dance, I was worried that she would snap a heel and fall on her face. The bouncer pulled her down before she killed herself.

My sense of humour doesn’t translate well on the dance floor, either. I didn’t get any laughs when I cast a line to reel people in. I thought it was hilarious!

Don’t even ask what I was wearing.

I’m cool with the fact that I’m not invited to the Swanky Club for being so bar-awesome. It’s not me, but every once in a while I like to have that kind of fun.

If I wasn’t cool with that, I could work hard to fit in. I could buy bar clothes and learn how to put on make-up. I could practice dancing in my spare time. I could look up some lyrics online. I might never become the swankiest club hopper, but after a while I would be a clubber.

That’s what makes it difficult to know who people are; who they really are.

Am I the person that I am every day, or who I am today? Was I a different girl when I was sick, because I was sick for so long that I became that person; or am I the healthy woman, because it’s basically the person I started out as?

Maybe I’m a woman who used to be sick, because cardiomyopathy changed me just enough to be considered a major life event. I sing in the shower again now that I’m healthy. Is that the difference between happy and sad Jenn?

Am I who I’m trying to be, who I want to be, or who I am right now? Am I my past? My feelings? My thoughts?

I wasn’t myself for seven years. That’s a long time to be lost. I started a few new jobs, made friends, wrote a book, bought a house, got healthy and had a baby. If I wasn’t me that whole time, who was I?

Does that decade of my life count as a night-at-the-bar-type experience?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

You're Special: Advocate

This is the first part in a series.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many doctors. To a sickie, doctors are priceless, but they can also be assholes. Don’t bother reading the glib magazine articles about getting the most out of an appointment – I’ll tell you what you really need to know to navigate the tricky terrain of communication and ego. My specialty is specialists.

Take a buddy. Don’t ask your husband/mom/friend/brother/daughter-in-law to join you because you need a second set of ears, because ears are overrated. You need an advocate in that office; a reminder to the doctor that you are a human being who knows a handful of people, and those people care enough about you to take time off work.

It sounds sick, but doctors find it easier to put you in the whacko column if you’re alone, and when you’re in that column, you’re dismissed. Once that happens, even when you sound smart about your symptoms, you’re considered a potential hypochondriac, and when you can’t find the words to describe the fact that the world looks purple today, you’re a pushover.

There might be a reason nobody cares about this whacko, he might think. Going alone to an appointment has cost me. Don’t let it cost you. Find someone to take time off work for you, even if it’s inconvenient. If there’s absolutely nobody who can make it, consider bringing a cut-out of Neil Patrick Harris.

But seriously, the person sitting next to you across from the doctor’s desk sets a tone: this illness is real and it has affected her family. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice of people to bring, pick the smart, empathetic one who knows all of your symptoms and how each one has made your life shit.

Prep this person beforehand, so you present a united front. Give your husband permission to act as your advocate. Tell him it’s okay to interject with symptoms you forget, or with stories about how bad it really is, if you’re one of those people who would rather keep the mood light.

The more chances you give the specialist to see you as a person, not a file, the more likely you’ll get the care you need.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Face It, Kiddo

Can you give up on anything if you’re still alive?

That girl who sang in the shower couldn’t sleep at night unless the ideas that had filled her head all day were on paper. That woman who woke up in the hospital hadn’t written more than a grocery list in years.

I had given up on my dream; my way of understanding the universe. Partly because writing had become really hard for me and mostly because I lost confidence.

There comes a point, at least I thought so for a few years, when you have to face reality. I finished a novel when I was sick, dressed it up and sent it out into the world. Not surprisingly, it was rejected. The feedback I got was disheartening.

“I just don’t love it enough.”

Vague and brutal. Obviously I missed the mark. Unfortunately, I was too stupid to figure out what the mark was, and after a few more rejections, I gave up. I knew the novel had to be re-written, but I didn’t think I could do it. I said to myself:

It’s gone.

You’re not that person anymore.

You might never be well enough to get it again.

And I started to believe those things. Really, I could barely think straight most days, so it made sense. I thought I had reached ‘face time’. As in, time to face the facts, kiddo. Grow up, start a career, get serious. Time to stop dreaming.

But life isn’t linear like many novels. Life is marvelous and unexpected and beautiful.

My life zig-zags and loops back, and at one point it was a series of random dashes. Writing was a myth when I didn’t have the brain power to create a clear sentence.

I’m slowly gathering the courage that I need to face the myth, because I won’t truly give up until I’m dead.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Work It Out

Exercise seemed impossible when I was sick.

My simple stationary bike taunted me every night after work. Eight hours of sitting at a desk left me too exhausted to cook dinner and do the dishes, but I was supposed to find enough energy to work out. Whenever I’d walk by the bike to sit on the couch, I would hear my doctor’s voice.

You should get thirty minutes of exercise a day. At the very least.

I felt guilty when I didn’t get on the bike; like I wasn’t doing everything I could to get well. So, more often than not, I’d peddle as hard and fast as I could for as long as I could stand it. I usually lasted ten minutes at the lowest tension.

My legs were always heavy as hell about half way through my pathetic attempts at cardio. And by the end, I was winded and red-faced and when I walked to the couch to rest, it felt like industrial mop buckets filled with water were strapped to my feet.

There were nights I resisted the pointless exercise. By the end of the week, when my fatigue had glazed over me and I was more zombie than human, I looked at the bike, heard the voice and replied, fuck it. It can wait. Rest is more important right now.

Working out was torture. Now that I’m well, I look forward to working up a sweat on my treadmill. Not because I’m a fitness freak, but because I can. I feel exhilarated after a forty-five minute stride. It’s amazing.

I have a small, plastic, anatomically correct heart hanging from my treadmill to remind me why I walk. I’m working up to a full on run. I want to put as much distance between the sick me and the well me as possible. I want to run while I can.