Cristina's Heart Scar, Chapter 8: Waking Up From A Coma
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Around 7:30am my dad and sisters arrived at the hospital. My mom went to go meet them with the joyous news, “She’s awake! She’s very worried about not being able to talk, but she’s awake! I’m so happy!!” They all hugged and rejoiced and began calling family and friends to share the update.
An hour or so later, the doctor came to tell my family that they were going to extubate me soon. Once the breathing tube was out, I’d be able to talk. This was going to be a very critical moment. At this point they knew that I could hear and see, I could respond, I could even write, but they had no idea what I’d remember, who I’d remember. The state of my brain was still an unknown.
At 9:30 the doctors came in to remove the breathing tube. After a little effort and with my hands still tied down, they pulled out the tube and administered oxygen through my nose. They untied my hands and took off the gloves.
Important note: it is at this point that I’m no longer solely relying on my mom’s notes. My mother took incredible notes, so I’m still using them for details. But I have a personal memory of almost everything from this point forward.
My hospital bed had been slightly propped up and I could see my parents, my sisters, and a bunch of nurses and doctors staring at me. At first I thought I was in my own bed. The lights seemed bright and yellow, I remember the sun coming through the window. Everybody was looking at me, it felt like one of those dreams where you’re on stage about to perform but you don’t know what you’re supposed to do. My throat hurt. I knew something was wrong because my parents were there, and they didn’t live in New York.
“Hi,” I said. I smiled and everybody smiled back. Everybody looked so happy. It wasn’t adding up. It felt like I had strep throat. My voice was hoarse from the breathing tube, “What happened?”
“You had a heart attack,” someone explained.
“I had a heart attack?!” I kept repeating it over and over. It’s weird because I remember being shocked by the fact that I had had a heart attack. Yet at the same time, in the back of my mind, lingered the thought of I knew this was coming.
The next few hours were a complete blur. I almost reverted back to a childlike state, rattling off millions of questions and musings. I wanted all of the gaps filled in, I wanted to know everything.
“How long have I been here?”
“Moni, why are your hands yellow?”
“I don’t know. Do they look yellow, Tini?” my sweet sister indulged.
“Thank you for coming, Moni.”
“Of course I’d come see you, Tini!” Monica let out a little giggle at the fact that I was playing hostess from my hospital bed.
“Why do my hands look like this?”
Like what, Tini? What do you hands look like?
“How did Cari get here?”
“I flew on a plane, Tini. I came to see you,” my other sister responded with a smile.
“Did I miss work?”
“Did anyone email them?”
Yes, don’t worry. They know, and they all send you love.
“Why are my hands yellow?”
They’re not yellow, Tini. That’s just your skin color.
“I want to go home.”
Don’t worry Tins, you’ll get to go home soon. Not yet, but soon.
“Am I going to be okay?”
Yes! You’re going to be okay. All the doctors and nurses are taking care of you. We’re all here for you.
“Do I have to go back to work?”
Not right now. Not if you don’t want to.
“Will I be able to eat hamburgers?
Maybe veggie burgers.
“Can I have orange soda?”
We’ll have to ask the doctors, but I think so.
“I’m thirsty, my throat hurts.”
I know, it’s from the breathing tube. You can’t have anything to drink right now, but as soon as you can we’ll get you some water.
It was becoming clear that my brain was miraculously preserved due to Lizzie’s CPR and the hypothermia protocol. I recognized my family, I was asking questions, I remembered who I was and where I worked and what I liked to eat.
At some point a neurologist came in to conduct a quick mental status examination,
“Good morning, can you tell me your name?”
“Cristina Beltran,” I responded.
“Thanks, Cristina. Do you know what year it is?
“Um, it’s 2011.”
“Great. Can you tell me your birthday?”
“Cristina, can you tell me what time it is?” He pointed to the clock on the wall.
“Perfect. Okay, a little trickier one, can you count backwards from 100 by 7?”
100-93-86-79-72-65…” I took my time in between each number, but I passed.
“Great job,” he said. “Now can you spell the word world backwards?
This one was easier for me, “D-L-R-O-W.”
I passed the tests! My mental status was looking almost perfect, my family was exuberant! They shared the news with all our friends and family: She’s awake! She remembers us! She knows who she is! She’s going to be okay!
Word of my status spread quickly, and within the hour, my floor of the hospital had been turned into a full on celebration. My father’s business partners (who had flown in from California with their wives the day after my cardiac arrest) showed up with a feast from Eataly. They brought fruit, cheese, fresh bread and charcuterie. Bottles of wine and Champagne were opened! They had a toast to my survival!! They played music from my mom’s computer! A parade of visitors and treats kept arriving! One friend sent twelve dozen Magnolia cupcakes, another sent an array of Edible Arrangements. My room was filled with flowers, stuffed animals, greeting cards, chocolate, and so much more. It felt like a party. It was a party! At one point there were over forty people in the family room toasting Champagne. Everybody was so happy, which made me so happy! And the truth is, I didn’t completely understand why all the celebrations. All I knew is that I was going to be okay, and that everybody I cared for was there to celebrate – it was incredible! What did I do to deserve such love?!
The festivities continued throughout the entire day, more and more people came to visit. In between the stream of hugs and kisses, toasts and cheers, smiles and laughter, I’d continue with my questions and musings.
“What happened when I had a heart attack?”
Your heart stopped and Lizzie gave you CPR. She saved your life.
“Lizzie, you saved my life??”
Sure did, baby girl!
“Do I have to go back to work?”
Only if you want to.
“When I can have something to drink, can I have orange soda?”
Probably, we’ll find out.
“Thank you for coming, Jackie. I love your hair!”
“Haha thanks, Tins!” my dear friend couldn’t hold back a loving laugh.
“Can I still eat Parmesan cheese?”
Maybe, we’ll see.
“Can I still eat hamburgers?”
We’ll have to see what the doctors say about that.
I repeated myself a lot, I asked the same questions over and over. I became a little obsessive about certain topics: hamburgers, orange soda, yellow hands. At one point my friend Jackie quoted a line from the movie The Break-Up, “Tap tap tappy, tap tap tappy. And Gary on the kick-drum, come come, on the kick-drum…” I couldn’t get enough of that joke! Every few minutes I’d ask her to repeat it. And when she wasn’t around, I’d tell it to anyone who would listen. Laughing harder each time. “Wasn’t that so funny, mom? Jackie is so funny!” Some friends sent a get well video of their two little daughters dancing – this became another one of my obsessions. I watched the 30 second video on repeat for almost an hour.
To this day my family is convinced that this is the one brain symptom I suffered from the cardiac arrest. I still get obsessive. I can watch the same movie a thousand times and never get bored. If there’s a funny joke, I repeat it ad nauseam – and think it’s just as funny as the first time. When I was in Spain for my sister’s wedding, I regretted not ordering Red Curry from room service one night. Since that day (well over a month at this point), I’ve thought about Red Curry for every single meal. In fact, I ate it last night for dinner and will likely order it at least a couple more times this week. I’m fully aware of the obsessive behavior, but I can’t help it. And it’s always very trivial, so thankfully it hasn’t hindered my life at all.
Anyway, at some point that evening a nurse stuck her head into my room, “Knock, knock,” she walked in. “I hate to break up the party, but we have to hook you up to another IV.” This was the first time that day that I really took into consideration that I was in a hospital. I was so scared of needles, and to me, IVs were the worst of them all. I started to cry when they tried put in the IV. They couldn’t find a vein that was big enough, they tried everywhere. My wrists, my hands, my neck, my arms, my ankles. I was frightened, and it hurt. At some point my friend Jose who was a Resident at a different hospital even tried, hoping that a familiar face would calm me down.
After almost an hour they finally had success. It was almost 11:00pm at that point, and the party had ended. My dad and sisters kissed me goodnight and left the hospital to get some much needed rest. My mom, as usual, stayed with me. The reality of what happened was starting to sink in. I kept asking my mom questions.
“Am I going to go back to work?”
We’ll see, honey.
“Mommy, can I have orange soda?”
Not tonight, sweetheart.
“Where are you going to sleep, Mom?”
In the family room.
“You can sleep here with me,” I pat the bed.
No honey, I have to sleep in the family room tonight.
“Oh yeah, you told me that. Do you think I can still eat Parmesan cheese?”
I’m not sure, we’ll have to find out.
“Are you sure you don’t want to get in here with me?” My mom was sitting in a chair next to my hospital bed.
It’s okay, honey. I’m fine here.
“But where are you going to sleep? Oh – you’re going to that little room – you told me already.”
It’s okay, Tini. I’ll stay here with you until you fall asleep.
“Mom, maybe I wasn’t in a coma? Maybe I just passed out?”
My mom explained that I was in a coma from the cardiac arrest. She told me that I had a blockage in my heart, but that the doctors had cleared it out.
“Did they do that with surgery?” I looked down at my chest for a scar.
No, you didn’t have surgery. They did it through your arteries.
“Why did this happen to me, Mom?” I didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s okay, this means I won’t get sick for a long time!”
Around 12:30am I finally fell asleep. Little did I know that this was only the beginning. I, in fact, would be sick for a long time. And one day, I’d even have that scar on my chest.