“Are you sure?” I ask.
The pain in my leg has its own pulse. Every few moments it wraps it tendrils around my left calf more tightly until I am folded in half and unable to breathe.
“I think we should probably go to the E.R.” Chris says.
He is a hypochondriac. Given to believing the slightest nerve twinge portends meningitis or A.L.S.
“Maybe I can just wait until morning. I’ll call the doctor at 9.”
The muscles in my leg feel like someone is wringing out a sodden beach towel. Tighter, tighter. I’m holding my breath.
“Maybe I sprained it.”
“Then why isn’t it swollen?”
The pain is starting to creep north of my knee. I am cold and exhausted. I’ve been trying to get back to sleep for an hour.
“OK. But it has to be Jefferson.”
It is early enough that 90.9 is still broadcasting the BBC. But I can’t hear anything except my own scared voice repeating, “You’re going to the hospital. You’re going to the hospital.” I am numb and quiet inside the car, silently deflecting dormant, seven-year-old images. I know what’s coming. It feels better to focus on my most present pain.
I limp into the miraculously empty Jefferson waiting room and almost apologize to the nurse on duty. “I think I hopped off a Septa bus the wrong way or something,” I offer. She lifts an eyebrow at my cough, and I continue through my medical history, making special note of childhood Asthma and a particularly brutal allergy season. There is a poster hanging on the cabinet behind her that displays the kinds of faces a cartoon would make in various stages of pain. I peg mine at a seven but wonder if I should have said nine.
When the nurse returns with a wheelchair, it feels like my tonsils crash into the pit of my stomach. I am conscious of my heart racing and my dead weight in the chair as the nurse wheels me past the guarded double doors into the actual emergency room. I force myself to breathe evenly and to avoid thinking about what is going on in the other triage areas.
From somewhere unidentifiable, a memory crashes in. I can see the ER at Penn. I can see Gus in a chair. On a gurney. I see myself, 24, following his medical parade from the waiting room into the ER. From the ER to a private room. I remember charging the $11 daily television fee to my dwindling bank account and realizing that was the only way I could help at all.
Finally, bay 56. I arrange myself carefully on the bed and swallow. And breathe. I reach my left hand over the plastic rails on my gurney and squeeze Chris’s. “This is really hard for me,” I croak. “I know it is.” He squeezes back.
I can feel my eyes welling up while my mind begins to race. I know the entire animation of Gus’s illness is about to flash by. I need a second of silence to stave off the nascent signs of panic attack. I breathe through my mouth and bear down hard. I force the images out of my mind. Everything slows. OK. Calm.
I open my eyes, staring directly into the fluorescent lights in the drop-ceiling overhead. Is this the last thing he saw? I can no longer remember whether Gus died looking at the ceiling or looking straight ahead at us.
A doctor our age lets himself into 56. I regurgitate the story of my sore knee, radiating pain. I repeat that my pain level is a seven.
Chris looks at me and says, “Really?”
“OK,” I say. “Maybe a nine.”
The doctor asks when last I flew. What kind of birth control I use. He tells me he merely wants to rule out a deep vein thrombosis. There is no family precedent, no swelling. It may just be muscular. When he offers something for the pain, I nearly cry in relief.
An hour later I am splayed out in a darkened ultrasound lab, wishing I’d gone to bed in better underwear. As the technician covers both of my legs in vaguely antiseptic smelling goop, I almost laugh to myself thinking that this is not the nervous ultrasound most people envision sharing with their newly minted spouses. The woman charged with blood clot fact-finding apologizes as she smashes the wand into my thigh.
I watch my veins slide by on the screen. It is difficult to make anything out in the murkiness. Then red spheres flash angrily into view and I feel my stomach bottom out again. Blood clots seem like a best-case scenario.
I remember Gus talking about watching his organs pulse on an ultrasound. I try to imagine a life where this is routine. How did he manage eight years of it?
Twenty minutes later a short, round man in a white coat at least three inches too long comes into the dim room. I am mercifully re-dressed. “You have blood clots,” he says evenly. “It is a very good thing you came in today.”
For the next few hours in the ER, it is easy to focus on myself. On this condition at this moment. On this specific pain. I learn how to inject myself with subcutaneous blood thinners and beg Chris to swear he’ll do it instead. I learn which greens are so high in vitamin K that I can’t eat them until I’m done taking the drugs. I agree to report immediately back to the ER if ever I bump my head. I make a brain bleed joke but Chris doesn’t laugh. I wonder what would happen if we’d gotten more serious news. I remember stumbling into a private restroom in the ER at Penn while a maintenance person asked me if I was OK.
Seven years later, this is not the ER where I realize my boyfriend is going to die from melanoma and I am going to watch it happen. The Jefferson ER is where my husband wrangles my discharge papers and helps me out onto the street so that we can go home together. The cocktail of Ultram and Hydrocodone is making me very sleepy and a little delirious, but the contrast feels magical. I feel like three of us just went through that ultrasound and I feel like that 24-year-old couldn’t possibly have been me.
[every time I go into a hospital, I still think of Gus. He died a few hours before the Eagles lost to the Patriots in the Super Bowl (in a city where the Eagles had never been to the Super Bowl before or since), so some day I may write about how melanoma ruined the NFL for me as well]