It was the morning after Thanksgiving, 2012. My parents and I were sharing a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where we were camped out after the holiday dinner. We were not here because it was a family tradition or even because we wanted to notch it up this year. My family loved our paper plate style event, the air thick with the scent of turkey baking in a paper bag and hot spiced cider simmering with cinnamon sticks all day long. We eagerly consumed my mom’s yearly pièce de résistance: Yams topped with bronzed marshmallows and Maraschino cherries baked into orange peels halved and hollowed out with jagged carvings along the edges, as you would do with a pumpkin on Halloween. The endless brunch that we had the day before at the hotel, opulent and excessive as it was, was no match for the Makoff meal. We were here because we had to be near the hospital and because no one had planned Thanksgiving this year.
Just weeks earlier, at 8 a.m. on Saturday, November 10, I had gotten on the treadmill to start the day with an endorphin rush sufficient to handle my three young children and their guests upstairs in the house. At exactly mile two, I had the onset of the most excruciating and bizarre sensation that a hole had been blown into the middle of my forehead. I could no longer stand- let alone run. I had the wherewithal to stop the machine and crawled my way to the bathroom to grasp a small black pail in the event that I would vomit. Sweating and shaking on the cold tiled floor of my garage turned gym, I made three phone calls: To my ex-husband, to my babysitter, and to 911: “Please come quickly. My brain is bleeding.”
I had been released from the intensive care unit only two days before Thanksgiving. Being a patient at a hospital where you work means begging your colleagues to release you when you feel safe despite their desire to keep you as long as they have any lingering doubt that you will be okay without them. After nine days, I had had enough and begged them to let me go home under the watchful eye of my family.
Released but on “stroke watch,” my seventy-five-year-old mother glued herself to my side. If I rose slowly – my hips aching after days of immobility – she would pop up beside me, arms braced, to ensure that I would not fall. My mother made the decision to book Thanksgiving at the hotel most near the hospital with a room to relax into after the event, and just in case things went south. She and my father would share a suite with me with the door connecting our spaces perpetually open so that they could watch me without boundaries.
As a runner, my pulse rests around fifty, but the ICU team had worried when it dipped to thirty-five, and my blood pressure hovered around ninety over fifty. Understandably, bags of saline were hung, and steroids were added. My headache improved, but my ankles disappeared, and I was often short of breath. Upon discharge, I went into full diuresis mode and spent the whole night after Thanksgiving toddling to and from the bathroom. As I passed through my parents’ room, my mom, brows furrowed, muttered: “You are going to pass out if you keep going like this.”
Early in the morning, I was shaky and frail but wanted to take full advantage of the large oval bathtub with the delicious array of bath oils and loofas. I crept to my mother’s side and informed her that I was going to take a bath, ignoring the nausea that was just starting to burn deep in my throat. I sat astride the tub and felt the warm stream of water flowing into the lattice of bubbles.
Sometime later, I found myself bathed in a pool of luminescent yellow light. I was Christina from the Andrew Wyeth print that had followed me from college in New York to medical school in Rhode Island and back home to Los Angeles where it hangs now. I was her at that moment — arms outstretched and longing but in need of nothing — my whole body enchanted and embraced by a warmth that outdid the brightest sun. I remember no fear or pain but total acceptance of whatever was happening. My eyes fluttered open, and I was splayed on the chilly dark tiles of the bathroom floor – in my mother’s arms. She finally exhaled when two large paramedics arrived and took me back to the hospital.
Eve Makoff is an internal medicine physician.
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