Ibrahim Ansari, Staff Writer

In eighth grade, my mother and I visited the doctor’s office. The chest pains I was experiencing were annoyances. Lying down to sleep was painful, getting up was painful, and breathing was painful. It was like there were glass shards tossing and turning when using my esophagus as a sleeping bag. 

My Primary Care Physician sent me to a pulmonologist to see if it had anything to do with my asthma. But he said there was nothing to worry about. But he was perplexed by one odd detail: Exercising makes my asthma symptoms better. So to be safe, he sent me to a cardiologist. 

The cardiologist checked my pulse, and sensed irregular beats, so he asked the nurse to get the EKG machine. She came back and put ten, icy stickers on ten different points on my abdomen. Still irregular heart beats. I was sent to yet another room where I would be searched by an echocardiogram. The room was dark and cool, and the pillow was crinkly and warm. An Ice Age movie was playing on the T.V. The clear, cold, squelching ultrasound gel was applied on my abs. It took a few seconds for the echo guy to find my heart on the dark, grainy screen, but then there it was. My heart. It looked normal to me, the untrained, ignorant 14-year-old that I was, but the echo man cringed by sucking his teeth. He pointed at what looked like a hole that a marble shooter would have felt snug inside.

“That’s in your atrium.” He spoke in an Iraqi accent. It was the first time in about twenty minutes that I’ve even heard the man breathe. “I am not sure if implant will be small to close it, but I will let the doctor decide.” The device he mentioned would be moved through the catheter to my heart and would’ve sealed the cavity, if it was big enough. But since it wasn’t, the cardiologist told us later that they would likely need to do an open-heart operation. If we didn’t, it could lead to lung problems by the age of twenty. I concealed my emotions. The thought of someone cutting, sawing, hacking his way through my manubrium and sternum with their gnarled tools is not pleasant, to say the least. 

The earliest date we could get with an experienced heart surgeon (‘Cuz you know damn well we’re not going to someone with zero experience) was March 20th, 2018, about a month away. This undesirable date was branded in my amygdala from counting down the days. In fact, just last March, I experienced something called ‘Anniversary Reactions.’ This is when the anniversary of a traumatic experience triggers PTSD. 

From then on everything seemed awful, unsettling. Sweet foods tasted sour and sour foods tasted bitter. The only distraction I had was school, and, well, fortunately but unfortunately I was enrolled in Home and Hospital so that I didn’t get sick prior to the surgery. So I had to deal with the stress of an upcoming open heart surgery, and on top of that, I was expected to do school work. 

I didn’t talk much that month, I recall. I would busy myself with the task of counting down the seconds to minutes, minutes to hours, and hours to days. And whoever was in charge of the damn Time that month stretched out the days to three times its length. 

In the Home and Hospital classes I took online, I met this one friendly kid. He texted me in the private chat of the classroom. I guess you can say we were trauma buddies. He had spine and neck problems and would have to go get checked out by an MRI scanner every other day. I can tell you from firsthand experience that it’s not a pleasant experience. For two hours, It feels like you’re in a cold, blinding coffin, and even with noise-cancelling earmuffs, it sounded like you were in the middle of extraterrestrial warfare with all the beeps and buzzing. And you’re not allowed to move a muscle. It could interfere with the readings. So talking to him during classes would take my mind off a few things. I remember a week prior to March 20th, I was extremely shaky, and I would text him “Seven days left,” or “Six days.” I genuinely thought I was going to die. It surprises me today that I never confided with my family on how I was feeling. I guess I was just extremely shy. Or maybe I was just too enveloped in fear. I forget.

For some odd reason, I would watch gameplay of “Surgeon Simulator.” It sounds illogical. Me, a boy who is stressed out about an upcoming surgery watches a virtual patient get hammered in the ribs and get lacerated from a circular saw with the ill-defined, clumsy hands of a virtual surgeon.    

On March 20th, 2018, I was “woken up” at Four O’Clock in the morning. The truth is, I was up the entire night. And why did it matter? They were putting me to sleep anyways. The Five O’Clock sun was a dim, warm blanket in D.C. My stress hormones in the car ride alone could have filled a two-liter bottle. I don’t exactly remember, but I know my brother did a good job in cheering me up. 

The waiting room’s chairs were actually super soft, but was I the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been? Yes. I wouldn’t have cared if I sat on a scorpion. What was coming up was way worse. What made everything worse is that Vampirina was playing on the T.V. It’s safe to say that I have PTSD from that, too. 

I don’t remember anything from being called into a separate room. I just know that the woman almost took the wrong patient and I almost got the wrong surgery. My dad caught her saying “Lungs” instead of “Heart.” She even got the doctor wrong. 

We then went to the preparation room, where I would strip to my underwear and wipe myself down with special wipes. I then had the option between two anesthesias. Either an inhalation or an injection. I chose the injection. I then said goodbye to my family, and was wheeled out. I actually don’t recall being wheeled out, or what the operation room looked like. My sister claims I was still looking back and around me when I was being wheeled out. To this day, I itch to know what it looked like.

Four hours later, I awoke. I was blinded by the pain in my chest and the first thing I noticed was that I could not breathe. Or so I thought. I gestured to the nurse standing next to me, who looked like Steve Jobs. 

“You’re fine. There’s a tube blowing oxygen into your lungs. You feel like you can’t breathe but you’re fine. I promise.” 

My dad says that I tried to pull the tube out and was strapped down to the bed. I don’t recall this. Hold your breath for as long as you can. When you can’t hold it any longer, hold it for thirty more seconds. It’s going to hurt. I felt that way for three hours. The feeling progressively worsened. When the tube was out, I was a whole new man. I was talking so much that I was annoyed with myself. I spoke with even the old Steve Jobs looking nurse. Nice guy. He’s from Burtonsville, too. 

I wasn’t able to use the bathroom, because of the side effect of one of the medicines I had to take. So I had to take a catheter. A small, long tube that penetrates your urethral opening and goes all the way down to your bladder. The feeling is unshakable. Just thinking about it makes my cringe. But it can get worse by the person doing it being an intern. She would do the handiwork, and her instructor would tell her how to do it. 

“Okay, now slowly, no no, not like that, not like that.”

Not like that? I’m thinking. You’re gambling with my manhood. How is this not illegal? If I can’t have kids in the future, she’s to blame.

I have absolutely nothing against new nurses and doctors. They learn just as an experienced doctor once did. But when new nurses would try to make me comfortable, which I appreciate, would actually make things worse. One night, I was bathing in sweat. It felt like all the moisture in my body just drained out of my pores like a bunch of microscopic faucets. It felt as if my organs were dry. My incision was bubbling in agony and I was squirming in the damp blankets. The nurse asked if the bed was in a bad position, and I, with much difficulty, nodded. When she adjusted the bed, I was in a much more peculiar position and didn’t want her to make things even worse, so I said that it was fine although it wasn’t. My heavy breathing would hurt my incision, and I was trembling. That night, I thought I was going to die.

I wear my scar as a badge. It may be ugly, but it’s a trophy, a sign that I was stronger than what I faced. I see myself in the mirror everyday and am not ashamed. It’s part of me. Thin, pink, crooked, gnarled, and six inches in length, I hope it never fades.