Dec 28, 2017

The Other Woman, Old Don Rickles, and the Graduate

As I walk in from the parking garage, I see the other woman and her husband making their way to the elevator that will take them to cardiac rehab. The other woman seems about my age, but walks slowly with a four pronged cane and unlike me, has not colored her hair.  Her husband takes great care with her, and even though his hair is also gray, he seems 15 years younger than his wife. Three times a week, her husband comes with her, holds her coat and bag, and sits in a corner and reads a book while she exercises. The few other family members accompanying patients sit outside, but they let him sit inside, right under a bank of monitors displaying our EKGs. I wonder what he's thinking and imagine him wondering when did his wife become his mother...

We are the only women in our time slot for cardiac rehab and find ourselves sharing the ladies room while we put on our heart monitors prior to exercise. Those monitors are sobering. They remind me why we are there. During my first two rehab sessions a patient had an emergency -- in one case they called the "rapid response team." I sat there watching them working on a woman in a wheelchair and overheard that her heart rhythm had gone into atrial fibrillation. Not a good thing and something I fear. I stopped bicycling and sat there staring and wringing my hands until one of the staff came over and distracted me with conversation and got me back cycling. I haven't seen that patient since. The other patient was a very tall, very thin, older man whom they asked to stop walking on the treadmill and walked him over to a chair. All I heard was that they were going to call his doctor. Never saw him again either.

Other than saying hello, neither the other woman or I have anything to say to each other or to anyone else. However, last week my curiosity prompted me to ask her why she was there. Last August she went out to dinner with her husband, came home and had a massive heart attack. The next thing she knew it was 7 weeks later, and was waking up from a long, very difficult, recovery from two heart surgeries. Too weak to go home, she spent a couple of weeks in a skilled nursing facility.  She's told it without emotion and we haven't spoken since. But, I'm stunned at the seriousness of her story.

I sit at the back of the rehab facility watching and counting all the other patients. The census changes but we seem to have settled on a group of 2 women and 9 men. I watch the other woman on her bike. She does the same exercise all the time, never increasing the time or intensity, staring off into the distance. She doesn't move on to other equipment like most of us, and appears to be going through the motions. Perhaps because she's the only other woman there, or because I know her frightening story, I watch her every time I am there, hoping to see a smile or a faster turn of her bicycle wheel.

Right next to me today is Old Don Rickles. He wears khaki pants, a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and what look like very new sneakers. He has a shiny face, with just a scattering of pale gray hair circling his even shinier bald head. I call him Old Don Rickles because after seeing and talking with him a few times at cardiac rehab, I realized that he reminded me of an aged Don Rickles.

Old Don talks non stop. He talks to anyone who will listen while we wait for our 8:30 am time slot to begin, all lined up like school kids on little black plastic folding chairs along the wall outside the rehab room. I don't like sitting there. The chairs are too close to one another and, while I'm usually pretty outgoing, I'm not inclined to chat with anyone else at rehab. I'm too anxious. I sit there and fumble with my new phone, logging onto the unsecured hospital wifi so that I can listen to Pandora while exercising. I check the time repeatedly and take deep breaths. This place bothers me but I'm not sure why.

Old Don talks to me while we are standing in line prior to our session to get our blood pressure taken and our instructions for the day. He continues to talk as he makes his way towards his assigned exercise bike, talks as he adjusts the seat to fit his long legs, and continues as he very slowly sits down next to me. He stops talking when I put in my ear plugs, but later I see him chatting with the nurses as his vital signs are checked before he leaves.

I like Old Don. He just seems like a happy gentleman, but I wonder about what's under all that talk. Does he talk so much because he is lonely? Did his wife die and his children move away? Or does he just talk because that is who he is. When I see the half interested, but polite, look in everyone's eyes, I realize that I've seen that look in my dear husband's eyes when my own nervous talk goes on for too long! I hope that's all that it is. I really want him to have someone in his life when he leaves rehab.

Today starts well. My legs are tired because I was at rehab yesterday, and then walked more at the local mall. I bike more slowly than yesterday but I finish my assigned 20 minutes and move onto the treadmill. I'm excited to be on the treadmill. Yesterday, for the first time ever, I kept a 3 mile-an-hour pace for almost 10 minutes and ended up with a 23 minute mile. It's pathetic for the average human, but for me, it is fantastic and I'm proud of myself. I work hard enough to need a towel to dry off my sweat. This feels good.

I'm 10 minutes into the treadmill today when I hear loud music breaking over the music in my headphones. I see a young man about 35, lean and looking quite fit, and what looks like his girlfriend or wife making his way around the the track that circles the equipment. I've seen him before and wondered what happened to bring him here, but I have no idea.

As he passes me I see his fist is raised in victory. They are playing Pomp and Circumstance and the staff and other patients are cheering and clapping, and for a long time. It's cardiac rehab "graduation" day for this fellow. He's completed 36 sessions and looks happy. The young woman with him is jumping up and down.

I tear up hearing the music and increase the sound on my phone, trying to drown out graduation day. Then I'm crying. I slow down the treadmill and try to stop, but the tears come in wracking sobs. The other woman's husband is sitting near me and looks up. Embarrassed, I stop the treadmill and head to the ladies room where I grab a towel and continue to sob. A nurse is alerted that my heart rate is too high so she finds me and sits next to me on a bench and talks to me.

I gather myself together, do the medical check out, and leave. By then the rehab room is empty. I walk out and see the next group lined up against the wall, waiting their turn. There's an endless supply of patients.

I'm exhausted from all the drama and walk slowly down the hall. Maybe this isn't worth it. We have a treadmill at home that I am already using and I can just do that. I see the other woman and her husband sitting together on a soft fabric-covered bench under a big window. I've sat on that bench myself -- when I needed to calm myself either before or after rehab. On a sunny day you can sit there wrapped in warmth and check your email and think great thoughts about stamping and Christmas and, sometimes, death. I'm a laugh and a half at rehab.

But today is gray and cold and they are sitting close and I can sense this isn't a happy stop. Before I can look away, her husband catches my eye and I try to smile. She notes that he's shifted his attention and looks up.

The other woman says to me "are you coming back next week?" "Yes," I say. And then I add, "Are you?"

And the other woman says, "Yes. Monday's a holiday so I'll see you on Wednesday."

That's all we say but it is enough. I'll be back.


18 comments:

Susan Raihala said...

Thank you. You write life beautifully, Joan.

Joan B said...

thank you Susan. That's a wonderful compliment from you!

Margaret Daly said...

My cardiac rehab experience has been very different...I started in January 2016 in the maintenance group...I had been in Weight Watchers since August 2015 and was steadily losing weight...I knew that I had to start exercising in order to keep losing weight and yet I was terrified of going into a-fib...most of the time when I would have an episode it would be when I was sitting quietly or even during the night time, so I was very worried that if I started exercising I would absolutely have an episode...when I started classes I was very quiet and just "taking it all in"...as time progressed I became more comfortable with the other clients and also with the urging of the staff members I was agreeable to trying different equipment other than just the treadmill (by the way, I had never been on a treadmill in my life)...the clients in the maintenance program have been going for a long time now...heck, I am a two year veteran as of next week! Anyway, most of us show up about 45 minutes to an hour before class just so we can all sit and visit in the reception area...we talk about all kinds of stuff, hardly ever medically related! The others have all been through the wringer with their conditions and I sometimes wonder why I am there as I have never had a fraction of their issues, but, at the end of my first year there I had lost an additional 80 lbs (having lost 35 lbs before I started exercising)...on Mondays we do aerobics, Wednesdays it's Zumba and Fridays we are either just using the gym equipment or doing tai chai or yoga...each session ends with strength training and stretching...I am very fond of all of these people and we all look out for each other and are concerned for each other when someone doesn't show up for class...The other good thing is that you can keep to yourself if you wish and nobody will bother you, but, we are such a nice and fun group of people that it is hard to resist us! Last week when we were doing Zumba we were having so much fun and laughing so hard I really thought somebody was going to complain about us making too much noise...but mostly when the cardiologists walk by our room they look in and they have the biggest grins on their faces, knowing that laughter and fun is great medicine too! By the way, Joan, it's been almost two years here and I am just getting to a 26 minute mile...I was so proud of myself until I heard that you are already doing a 23 minute mile! Keep up the good work...let's do a 5K together someday!

Meg M. said...

Oh Joan. Your post has brought me to tears. I am so grateful for your gift of writing and sharing all that you do. I think of you when I hit the gym and your story motivates me to try harder and to show up. I hope that next week's therapy is less traumatic. XOXO

Joan B said...

Margaret, thanks for sharing that!!! We need to see each other!!! Love, Joan

Joan B said...

oh Meg, thanks!! don't cry!!!! hope we are both successful

Barb said...

You are a great inspiration for me as I head into the new year. My cardiologist will be thankful too.

~amy~ said...

Thank you for sharing this Joan...love your writing and been thinking of you!

Leslie Miller said...

Oh, Joan. I don't have any of this stuff going on, so I have nothing to share in return, but your story moved me deeply. Your distress breaks my heart. I can only guess it takes time and one day they'll be playing Pomp and Circumstances for you. Here... I just have to give you a ((hug)).

Trish said...

Perfectly said Susan. Joan, when I read your beautiful pieces, I experience the joy and heartbreak and simple pleasures and difficulties that are this life. You touch my heart and I want to give you a hug and say well done. We need you in this world

4Ucards said...

I have been following you for sometime now. I am a silent observer. Your courage and your words are just amazing. Keep up the hard work. Sending positive thoughts your way. Joan, never stop writing, your are a fabulous story teller.

vdoyle8 said...

Wishing you strength, hope, good health and time to write & craft in 2018.

Betty Keefe said...

thank you for your wonderful story - when i get home i'm starting back at my exercise program for my leg - i quit about 3 weeks ago 'cause it hurt so much but now realize i'm never going to get better at walking unless i make myself work at it. right now i don't think i could even do a 1 hour mile! thanks for getting me into a mindset to get going again - happy healthy wishes for 2018!

Patt H. said...

Sending many prayers your way, Joan! You are such a trooper. My husband is a cancer patient & we spend lots of time at our cancer center for treatments. I see so many people there that look like they are all alone. We have many volunteers, tho, who always seem to know when someone wants to talk. I can't imagine going thru all the stress of illness by yourself. You have made me realize that I need to start getting more exercise so I can stay healthy to take card of my hubby. I'm going to start walking around the center grounds while he is getting his treatment so I stay healthy. If you can do all you do with a bad heart, I should be able to do plenty with just a sad heart! Thanks for sharing your journey.

Janet said...

You have a gift Joan. I have this quote pinned to my Pinterest Writing Board (and it is part of your gift):
" The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance." - Richard Price

Diana K said...

I can just imagine how hard this is to do, Joan, and my heart breaks for you. I remember when I was a cancer patient the most difficult part was being surrounded in chemo by other patients in the same condition, or worse, than me. I guess it made me feel more vulnerable than I thought I was. Up until then I always thought that the doctors had made a big mistake. It's going to get easier, or not, but in either case it's something that you have to get through. Love you for sharing. You are the most awesome woman I know. Big hugs to you.

Laura Bassen said...

For whatever reason, your post really drew me in today. Thinking of you and sending you hugs and encouragement and positive thoughts♥

Joan B said...

hope you and your doc are happy