As the ultrasound technician moves the wand around my chest, Bren’s insult about “playing picture pages” in the film “Juno” cascades through my ears. I want to make a joke to break the tension, but I know she’s heard the line a million times. She’s an ultrasound tech and that film is what, nine years old? By this time the joke is too old, too tired, to be funny. That’s not even the best reason to keep my mouth shut.
That tension? It’s my tension. It’s not a tension between us. There is no “us.” No her and me. I’m a piece of meat, living meat, but we don’t really need to interact. The tension is mine. All mine. I’m tense. That’s the issue.
She works quickly, her left hand moving, aiming the wand, occasionally adding a bit more warm gel, while her right right hand dabs the keyboard and touchscreen. She’s working from a script long since memorized and if I say anything, any time she takes to interact with me will just be a net delay in her work. I figure I should respect her enough to just shut up and allow her to work as fast as she’s able.
Her work is so quick, so rehearsed, I think about her title—technician. She reminds me of friends I’ve watched as they used a graphics application like Photoshop or InDesign. She knows what she’s going to do even before the screen has caught up. The images and recordings stack up, one after another, each a unique view of the function of my heart. Mostly the stills and video are black and white, but some show waveforms that correspond to recordings of the sound of my heart’s function, while others show a cascade of blues, reds, oranges and flashes of yellow that remind me of Doppler radar.
“Well, you have a strong, slow, consistent heart rate.” Her tone is upbeat, encouraging. My response is that’s the only thing about my heart that wasn’t in doubt. I’m afraid it sounds snippy, but I decide against trying to clarify, that she’s probably smart enough to know just what I mean.
After a few more minutes and another dozen captures, she lowers part of the platform on which I lay and begins to scan me from the side. I’ve been watching the screen the whole time, focusing on my breathing and have lowered my heartrate from 48 when she started down to 41. Pride creeps through me and I note how irrelevant it is, how my low heartrate proves nothing. Were it in any way significant, a sufficient indicator of my health, I wouldn’t be laying here.
And then I realize that the combination of the wand’s position and the video of my heart contracting on the screen has allowed me to feel my heartbeat in keen detail. I can discern both systole and diastole without placing my hand on my chest. Each beat ripples through my chest like a sequence of pebbles dropped in a pond. Wheesh-whow, wheesh-whow, wheesh-whow. So different than the description we normally consider of ba-BUMP, ba-BUMP, ba-BUMP.
She hands me a towel, steps out. I dress, head back to the waiting room, sit down and open Facebook. What else do you do?
Before I can watch a skateboarding video, I’m called into another tech’s room. Off goes the shirt yet again. Two attractive women have seen me shirtless in an hour. Clearly a record. She walks me through the procedure for the Holter monitor and a few of the rules and then inserts a verbal caveat.
“But first, I have to shave a section of your chest. Sorry about that.”
Apparently, I’m still nervous because I feel the need to make a joke.
“No worries, but if you draw blood, we’re going to have to talk.”
She works quickly, without shaving cream. I’m so occupied with trying to think of something funny to say that the surreality of having someone else shave my chest barely registers. “Oops. Sorry, I nicked you. I’m going to apply a bit of pressure to get it to stop.”
“It’s okay. Nothing has killed me yet. And believe me, I’ve tried.” Just as what I’ve said registers, I realize I need to clarify. “Not that they were intentional, mind you.”
I’m such a freak.
She apologizes again, noting that she needs to essentially sand my chest with a little finger scrubber to prepare the surface of my skin. I decide against the joke about how many layers of primer. And then her final apology, she has to wipe my skin with an alcohol swab, which will sting, she assures me, and is cold, the insult to injury in her mind. How decent.
The device she sticks to me looks like a medical-grade cross between a bike blinky and Iron Man’s nuclear heart. I can eat, sleep, shower and exercise just like normal. No baths, no hot tubs, no swimming.
“I have to ask—even though you’ve been really clear—just for the sake of good communication, you’ve said that exercise is okay, but what about really vigorous exercise, where I might sweat a lot, like a hard bike ride?” I can hardly believe I’m asking, because at some level I believe there’s someone with an M.D. who, if asked, would respond, “What the hell is he thinking?!” I figure I’m just giving them the right of first refusal. “I mean, I have a bike race coming up next week.”
Not a flinch. “Well, if you can maybe bring a small towel along and dab the sweat away if you get really wet.” A pause. “I know that could be kinda hard, but just to avoid letting it get too wet. But if it does come off prematurely, just drop it in the box and mail it back.”
I’ve got a diary, a pen and a self-addressed, stamped mailer. If I have an episode, I’m supposed to click the monitor and write down the time of day and describe the event in as much detail as possible.
Let’s party, bitches.