Today I am four.
All of these ages I am and have been.
These ages represent five of the lives, of the events, that have shaped me.
I am both all of them and none of them.
Four: January 23, 2022. The day of my [re]transplant.
Seven: October 8, 2014. The day of my transplant.
Eight: March 17. 2014. The day I received my LVAD, Vlad.
Seventeen: July 18, 2015. The day of my heart failure diagnosis.
Forty-five: October 11, 1976. The day I came into this world.
Taken as they are, these are just dates. All random, monumental, and insignificant dates.
However, there is one date that isn’t there – one that I hope is long off – but one that I have looked at time and again wondering,
Is it now? Is this the day? I am ready, thank you for this life.
I share with you, the last time I faced this date. Written as I saw it, as I witnessed it, lived it, and remember it.
In the wheelchair, outside the Cathlab I sit. In a cold, barren hallway with high windows, glazed over so that no one could see in or out. There I sit, in this hallway, in the University Hospital in the city of my birth. I await, with trepidation.
The pain in my chest, radiates like fire, up into my throat, into my jaw, across my shoulders, and down my left arm into my hand. Pain radiates and burns like a pulsating fire.
It would not go away.
I breathe in deeply.
A tall man with dark hair in scrubs – his face is blurred in my memory – comes up the hallway and greets me. I think I greet him back. He walks behind me and my chair swivels and begins to move. Two giant, steel doors open automatically and my chair rolls inside.
I enter a large, cold, cavernous room. A greeting echoes across the divide, originating from a masked woman in a lead gown with warm friendly eyes.
In the centre of the cavern was a long steel table, surrounded by hovering monitors, an x-ray machine, and metal trays upon which are un-namable instruments. All of which makes me nervous.
The voice in my head begins to panic,
I don’t know this space. These aren’t my people.
The masked woman with friendly eyes asks me if I can stand. I said that I could, I stand up and she ushers me up onto the steel slab that to my surprise, is warm. She may have said other things, but my memory has reduced much of what was said to me from this point on to the muffled “Wah, wah, wah…” as all adults had in the Charlie Brown cartoons.
My gown was removed and I was quickly covered for modesty. I started to shiver, despite the warm table, as the cold, wet iodine solution was painted on both sides of my groin.
My Masked Friend was soon joined by other Masked Bandits, as they made their preparations. She offered me something to help me relax and I said “Yes, please! And have more ready as I know I will need it.” She laughed and injected her magic potion into my IV.
Within seconds I relaxed. But I was still very much AWARE. Acutely aware.
The local transplant doctor, whom I had met briefly before at a national event that HeartLife was involved in, came in to reintroduce himself and reassure me that he was there and was in touch with my team back home.
I was relieved. Not that I didn’t trust him, but that my people – and my Mad Hatter – were there on the line ready to guide what happens. I can only imagine what that must have been like for my team, and how hard it must have been
There was a flurry of movement and activity around me. People said things to each other. People said things to me. Again, the Charlie Brown voice. I am pretty sure they explained what they were going to do. Since this wasn’t my first Angiogram Rodeo. I simply nodded or acquiesced choosing instead to focus on my breathing, trying to relax the panic in my mind, as the pain continued to radiate through my chest and body.
I felt a sharp, quick stab of pain as the needle went into my groin. The freezing. I asked for extra explaining that I always need extra.
They begin to work.
They worked for a long time.
And then they worked some more.
They may have told me I had blockages, or that I overheard them talking to each other, and they may have said they were going to put in a stent.
At this point, I ask my Masked Friend with the warm smiling eyes for more magic potion. Only. Her eyes weren’t smiling. They were full of concern. She injected calm into my IV. She may have added a little more than last time.
They kept working.
I tried to be good. To be still. But I was crying.
I was crying because I knew. I knew this wasn’t good.
They asked me to remain still.
Dear Masked Bandits, I promise I tried to be still!
The next thing I remember, with the vividness of reality as though it just happened, is the transplant doctor coming out from behind the glass window where he was watching the procedure, a phone to his ear.
He came over to me, a stalwart expression on his face. He said he just got off the phone with Dr. Toma.
His words remain loud and clear in my mind, even now four years later.
Jillianne. All your arteries are blocked. You are going to need another transplant.
I didn’t think I would have time.
I once told Nick long before, as it dawned on me that my life might actually end that night, I looked over at him and told him that I loved him and that I would die a happy woman.
He looked at me and said “Fuck you,” and squeezed my hand.
At that moment, despite knowing that he was thinking the exact same thing as I was then, he looked death in the face and told it to “Fuck off.” In all of the moments since, when I was sure that I just couldn’t do it anymore, that I just didn’t have the strength of character to pull through, I would think of Nick and that time, and I would continue for another hour, another day.
As the transplant doctor said the words “You are going to need another transplant,” though, my ears rang deaf as the world around me collapsed.
I shattered. I fractured. I broke. Into a million little pieces.
At that moment, I thought of Nick and how I couldn’t put him through this again. That I couldn’t tell him we had to do this all again so soon.
Waves of grief and shame overwhelmed me. I could not stop shaking. I could not stop crying. Grief at having to tell Nick. Shame because I had let my donor down. That my donor was dying again inside my chest because of my body.
As I cried and shook, the Masked Bandits in the room asked me again to try and stop moving and be still. My Masked Friend with the warm and now empathetic eyes, gave me more calm in my IV.
In an unexpected move, she took my hand.
At that moment, with her touch, I came back to earth.
With my heart lost and my Self shattered, my Masked Friend – sans mask and lead vest – wheeled me on a stretcher into recovery.
“I can’t tell him. I can’t tell Nick,” I said. “You have to get the doctor,” I pleaded.
Nick walked up, and my grief and shame grew even deeper. I could not speak. He looked at me, his blue eyes full of concern, and his face became pale and he started to sweat. He grabbed my hand, his hand was ice cold.
My Masked Friend told him the news as the transplant doctor walked up.
He looked wide-eyed at them both and said
OK. What do we do next?
I was some days after I was home from my first transplant and I was so sick, weak, and extremely nauseous. I had fallen into another one of my Gravol-induced naps. What set this nap apart, however, was that I actually dreamt. One of the only times I have dreamt, and the only time I had the following dream.
In the dream, I don’t remember where I was. I only remember I was surrounded by white. Everything was white and very bright and vivid. Despite the light, I remember feeling a sense of dread. The fear was overwhelming. The grief, sadness, and anger I felt were so deep.
Then I saw a cardinal. A bright, red, distinctive bird. Perched on a white tree. I have never seen a cardinal in real life. I have only seen pictures. Although, we had felt cardinal ornaments that my Nanna and Grandad gave us as kids for our Christmas tree.
Watching the cardinal sit on its perch everything about it reminded me of my childhood. Our time at Christmas that we would spend with my Nanna and Grandad. My Nanna loved Christmas and she was the eternal child, crawling under the tree, shaking presents, well into her seventies. I remember my younger brother and I would lie under the tree looking up inside it from below, watching the blinking lights, and playing with the ornaments. The felt cardinal always there.
As I dreamt, I came to associate that cardinal with my Nanna. I don’t know if it *was* my Nanna, but it felt like it.
In the white space, somewhere in between worlds, I was covered in a blanket of fear, watching that cardinal. It didn’t make a sound. It just looked at me and cocked its head. It made me remember all the times that I was safe, that I was happy when I still had innocence, hope, and wonder – like my Nanna. As I thought of those times, the fear and dread left me. I felt safe, protected, and whole.
I knew that things were going to be OK.
I fell back asleep and did not dream.
When I woke, I saw Nick and I felt safe, protected, and whole.
It has been four years since I was given yet another chance at life. It has been seven years, 3 months, and 16 days since my first transplant.
With each day that passes, I wake with gratitude in the realization that I am here to start again. Accepting the truth of my life, on a journey to rediscover what and who I know myself to be. Out of tragedy, I work to exude forgiveness mostly for myself as there is nothing I or anyone could have done differently. In gratitude, I live to bring meaning to both of my donors and their families for all of the extra days I have been given to live, make a difference, and be with the ones I love.
I used to be unable to think of the future. I stopped myself from doing that years ago as a way to protect myself. The person that was shattered that day, will never be the same. Some of the pieces no longer fit, while others have a match made stronger. I am still Me, just different.
Now that I am four (again), I realize that I was never shattered or broken. I became lost. Left to wander my through, and try to figure out this so-called life. Whenever I feel this way, I remember the hands. The hands of the people that took my hand in theirs, letting me know that I was not alone bringing me back down to earth.
From my anonymous Masked Friend to my beloved husband Nick, I know I will always have a hand if I need one.
As long as I take it out of my pocket.