Street confessions: The heart attack survivor

Stories from the bus

Our conversation began after deboarding.

While commuting we’d been sitting across the aisle from one another, our seats facing each other. While in motion, the bus had been shrouded in silence. We didn’t speak. We’d only looked at each other. I’d felt her size me up in that bored way fellow passengers often do, trying to remain non-threatening, trying not to seem too curious.

Now on the street, our conversation was anonymous, tucked quietly into the background of city sounds. The barrier the bus aisle provided had been spell broken with a few steps and an exit. Now on the sidewalk we were both waiting, eager to be somewhere else.

When it became clear I wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry, she turned towards me and broke the ice. Our conversation didn’t start with the normal small talk pleasantries. She was heading to the doctor for the first time in six months. She was nervous; my presence just a convenient distraction. It’s likely she would have tried striking up a conversation with anybody who had been standing there. Today that someone was me, a person who knows a thing or two about hospital waiting.

The memories of my own medical uncertainty fresh, I asked her if the appointment today was a good thing. She grinned. It’s a very good thing, or at least, that’s what she was anticipating. It felt different from so many others. Even good news can feel scary when there’s an undercurrent of uncertainty.

Early last year she’d had to have emergency open heart surgery.

She’d been in and out of emergency rooms for months before it happened, trying to get to the bottom of what was causing her crippling pain. Her doctor didn’t see it coming.

“It was the weirdest thing; one minute you’re fine, living life, making plans then suddenly out of nowhere, you’re fighting just to exist. The work you thought was important ceases to matter. No one prepares you for all the waiting and the uncertainty.”

She had been stroking her hair, self administering comfort as she spoke.

The life she described as her before belonged to someone with a high status career. She had been constantly busy, her job the center of her world. Giving back had been a priority; she served on a number of local boards and was a vocal community activist. That energy, that ability to take on old projects, was slow in returning. What she missed most was being able to run for an hour plus without stopping. In only a year, all of the constants in her life came crashing down. Her health wasn’t something she could run from. Neither was the fall out from this heart attack.

In trying to seem more human, she listed some of her many accomplishments, desperately seeking recognition as more than her illness. She’d been written off a lot this year. It was a feeling she wasn’t used to. It was a privilege she missed.

When our eyes met again she looked concerned that she’d overstepped, that she was being too personal with a stranger. That didn’t stop her from putting an arm on my shoulder and giving some unsolicited advice.

“You’re young. You don’t have to worry about anything like this for a while yet, but let me tell you: aging sucks. Treat people well. When your body’s a mess and your life is on the line, one of the worst thing you can be is alone.”