For many years, I was used to eating dinner late at night. And being from New Orleans, spicy seasonings remained a permanent staple in preparing my meals. I had never eased up on spicy fare, even as I aged. Living alone in a foreign country, little did I know how much my diet would eventually affect me in the worst way.
Late one night at my home in Germany, I had eaten a hearty tasty meal of spicy chicken breasts and pasta smothered in cheese. Walnut brownies with a glass of milk topped off my feast. After my meal, I headed to my living room sofa and curled up into a comfortable position to watch a television show. Affected by the heavy meal, I started to doze off. That was my cue to head to bed for what I thought would be a good night’s sleep.
Suddenly, a sharp pain in my chest jolted me awake. This frightened me because I had never experienced pain like this in my chest. I didn’t think of it as a heart attack, at least not yet.
Startled, I lay there perfectly still, hoping the pain amounted only to trapped gas, which would ease off and let me get back to my peaceful sleep. However, within seconds, the intense pressure started again---a deep, crushing pain in the center of my chest. Here I was—alone—in the middle of the night in a foreign country. I was terrified.
I opened my eyes to darkness, which made my situation even grimmer. I winced, clinched my fists, and tensed up my body as another sharp pain hit me hard. I thought I was dying. Every slight movement increased the pain. I was even afraid to breathe. Too scared to move, I tried to wait it out. I thought that if I kept my body still, this pain invasion would go away. I was at the mercy of this powerful, invisible vise squeezing my chest. However, I couldn’t stand lying there any longer. I rolled over and groped for the lamp switch. Through half-opened eyes, I glimpsed at my clock. It was 2:00 a.m.
Slowly, I propped myself up to a sitting position, which made the pain worse. Groggy, I made my way unsteadily to the bathroom. After switching on the light, I flung open the medicine cabinet, squinting as I scanned its contents for something to ease what I thought was a severe case of heartburn. I was in denial of anything as serious as a heart attack happening to me. Finding nothing but aspirin, I took two and went back to bed.
I slipped back under the covers, impatiently waiting for the aspirin to do its thing. Within seconds, the pressure gripped me again. Sitting up was of little relief. I sat on the bed hunched over to wait out the storm, which had invaded my chest. After a distressing few minutes, the painful pressure gradually radiated up to my left shoulder and down my left arm. The upper left side of my back started to get numb. “This can’t be heartburn. What if this really is something serious? What if I’m suffering from a heart attack? I’ve got to do something.”
My spunky spirit pushed me into action. First, I thought of calling my sister, Rosemary. She had always been my pillar of strength in times of trouble. However, she was thousands of miles away in New Orleans. I didn’t want to worry her. It was now 2:30 a.m. I didn’t want to disturb anybody. All I thought of doing was getting to the military post clinic for medical attention.
I felt lightheaded. "What if I die here all alone by myself? I tried to stave off panic by getting dressed. Afterwards, I tidied up a bit in case I didn’t make it. I didn’t think of it at the time, but I must have been losing my mind too. Who would have cared about the condition of my home? I knew I had close friends who cared about me, but I was still worried about leaving my place in even a slight disarray. From the dining room table, I gathered up empty plates with remnants of the spicy meal that I ate late last night. Crumbs on a saucer reminded me of the two tasty pieces of walnut brownies. Heading back to the bedroom, I rearranged the comforter on my bed and tucked my slippers underneath. Only then did I feel satisfied that my humble abode reflected my innate neatness.
The pressure intensified. It was now 3:15 am, time to go. After locking my door, I took the stairs leading to the garage. Like a ninety-year-old, I gripped the railing for support. I lifted the garage door with my right arm since the pain had sapped my left arm of its normal strength. In my car, I skipped the routine of buckling my seatbelt. That usual safety practice was the least of my worries. The military post clinic was only 10 minutes away. I prayed silently that I would make it there safely.
Now 3:45 a.m., this quaint little German village was eerily quiet. I saw no other cars on the road. Even the little four-legged creatures, normally scurrying across the road illuminated by bright headlights, stayed hidden in their nocturnal lairs. Nothing moved which would have given me any semblance of a life other than my own.
Though it was painful to drive, I didn't panic. Yet, my mind settled on grim necessities. It raced through a list of who is in my will and how they would divvy up my cherished belongings. It moved on to weighing the impact of how my sudden demise would affect my family. “I probably won’t even get a chance to say goodbye.” I was already burying myself. Realizing that no one lives forever, I succumbed to a tidal wave of self-pity. I choked back the tears welling up in my eyes. Crying would have given me such a relief. But I wouldn’t let tears hold me prisoner in a cell of dire desperation. I held firm to the facts. In spite of my situation, I was still alive. I still had a chance to get medical help.
Arriving on post brought me no comfort. Its roads were also desolate and empty of traffic. I became more apprehensive as the night’s stark stillness added more angst to my shaken core. “Everyone was probably tucked away in their beds, sleeping peacefully, while I’m out here, alone, suffering a possible heart attack. This isn’t fair.” Life seldom is fair, but we do get chances. And if we don’t take those chances, then we may lose those battles in life, which we all must face. I had to take the chance of getting to the clinic before my condition got much worse.
Arriving at the clinic, I parked erratically, ran to the entrance, and pulled at the handles of the massive double doors, but they wouldn’t budge. I peeked inside and saw that the clinic was in almost total darkness. A small light illuminated the long hallway leading to the patient check-in counter. I banged on the door as hard as I could manage with my right fist, hoping that someone who was on night duty might have been sleeping. But no one came. My self-pity turned to outrage. “What do I do now? I can’t believe there’s no one here. What about me and my emergency?” Feeling despondent, I started to panic. “Do I run through the housing area, going from house to house, banging on doors? Do I blow my horn hoping that someone would come to help”: I wanted to scream, “Somebody help me, please!”
I had to keep thinking straight. Taking in a deep breath helped keep me focus. I leaned against the building for a few seconds to collect my thoughts. Fortunately, I settled down enough to plan my next move: getting to the military police station only a few blocks away. I know MPs would have someone on duty.
Racing through blinking traffic lights, I sped into the parking lot. I jerk-parked into a spot right near the entrance, hitting the curb with my front tires. Clutching my chest, I tumbled out of my car and rushed up to the double doors, bursting through them with what little strength I had left.
The suddenness of my arrival startled the one military policeman (MP) on duty. Almost out of breath, I stammered, “I’m, I’m having chest pains, heart attack! Please help me!” The young military policeman’s face paled, but he didn’t panic. He jumped up from his seat and raced down the steps towards me to help me to the nearest chair. After sitting down, I started to cry. I couldn’t help it now. I felt so sorry for myself. “How could this be happening to me?” He tried to comfort me as best as he knew how, offering me words of comfort . Simultaneously, he called for medical assistance while getting basic information from me. A female military policeman on duty, who heard the commotion, came running from another office to the waiting area to help. Though her basic questions were a blur, one stood out: “Who should we call, Ms Metz?” This question gave me a feeling of finality to my situation. I thought of Rosemary again, but I didn’t want her to know, not just yet. I thought of telling her to call my sister anyway just to tell her that I Iove her. Instead, I told her to call my supervisor.
Within minutes, a red light pulsated through the glass doors, signaling the arrival of an ambulance. An on-call German doctor and two medics burst through the doors. The female MP translated information from me to the doctor. The medics placed me on a stretcher and strapped me securely in for the ride to the closest German hospital servicing Americans.
Immediately, the medics started routine procedures for possible heart attack victims. My fears worsened. The medics spoke very little English. There was no one in the ambulance to translate for me. I knew some German, but not enough to allow me to question them about my condition and treatment. I felt so helpless as I sunk deeper into depression.
Lying there on the stretcher, I started to pray again. That was the least I could do for myself and for those I would leave behind. I prayed that they would forgive me for not saying goodbye. I prayed that they would reminisce about our happy times and not be afraid to laugh about them. I prayed that they wouldn’t mourn too long. I didn’t want it that way.
My eyes rested on a beautifully unfolding sight through the back doors of ambulance’s tiny windows. The dawn’s light had pushed away the night’s blackness, giving way to a faint golden glow of the slowly rising sun. I closed my eyes to remember that beautiful view. Opening my eyes, I looked out the windows again, relishing the last bits of life I thought I would ever see. Stars, still twinkling in the morning’s sky like tiny diamonds, seemed to resist being tucked away for the day. Glimpses of lush treetops and a few birds gliding by reconfirmed the power and might of the Lord. Strengthened by my faith, I knew in my heart He would take care of me.
At the hospital, they wheeled me into the Intensive Care Unit. The flurry of activity around me became a blur as the ICU crew quickly sprang into action. I had no choice but to lay there and let them do their jobs to save me. I felt cool globs of gel being placed on my chest and at my sides, indicating that someone was hooking me up to a heart monitor.
I felt two slight stings from the needles being poked into my arms to gently force nourishment through my veins. The medical staff was polite and professional, but still no one spoke English. I became more despondent about not being able to understand them about the seriousness and treatment for my condition. I felt the calming effect of the anesthesia as I unsuccessfully tried to fight off drifting into unconsciousness. But I was still conscious enough to feel the tube being inserted into my nose to gently pump oxygen, which had an unpleasant odor. I was completely immobile and more scared than I’ve ever been in my life. But thank God my chest pains had finally subsided. I drifted into a deep sleep, awaking hours later by a nudge from one of the nurses. She checked the heart monitor and adjusted the flow from the bag of liquids into my body. From the actions of the medical personnel, I determined that the critical period for a heart attack had passed. After about an hour, they rolled me in to a semiprivate room. An elderly lady lay in the bed by the window.
When I felt a bit stronger, I sat up and turned her way. I greeted her in German, naturally thinking that she was German and knew the language. Responding, she started sharing information in German, which was too rapid and advanced for me to understand. I held up my hand and in the German phrase that I knew, I asked her to speak slower. Smiling and signaling that she understood, she started again but much slower.
I was able to understand bits and pieces of her information. Her name was Irinna. I don’t remember her last name. Maybe she told me, but I can’t recall it. She was originally from Russia and had come to Germany to live with relatives not long after the Berlin Wall came down. From the many deep wrinkles in her face, I guessed she was about 70 years old. Her thick silver hair with bits of black strands disappeared down her back. Her right leg was in a cast, which indicated that she was recuperating from an operation. Eager to share more of her story with me, she kept talking to me as if I were an old friend. I was at a loss because my limited German prevented me from interacting more with her. I think she knew that, but I believe she was just glad she had someone to talk to even if I couldn’t understand all of what she said. From the tone of her voice and the somber look on her face, I determined that she was lonely because no one had come to visit her since she had been admitted to the hospital.
My supervisor and friends arrived, immediately placing themselves at my beck and call. I cried all through this visit and my Christmas present in July: a three-way call with my sister in New Orleans and my brother, Eddie, in Indiana. Concerned friends from other parts of Germany also called to wish me a speedy recovery. I felt truly blessed to have so many who cared about me. They all gave me the biggest boost of all--more determination to take better care of myself.
After my friends left, I turned to speak with Irinna again. I told her that I would be going home in two days. She looked sad. I sensed that she wanted me to stay longer because she enjoyed our talks in spite of the language barrier. I promised her that I would come back to visit her. This brought a smile to her face.
After more tests to rule out causes of my chest pains, the doctor gave me the good news: it wasn’t a heart attack. It was a severe case of heartburn. The doctor advised me to watch my diet and to avoid eating heavy spicy meals so late at night---especially brownies.
Friends came to pick me up, but before they drove me home, they took me to the office to give me a little surprise: a wild and crazy card to match my personality, a beautiful plant which is still flourishing, and a colorfully wrapped box of Betty Crocker California walnut brownies, which still stare back at me each time I open my kitchen cabinet.
Later in the week, I visited Irinna. Her face lit up when I walked through the door with a bouquet of flowers for her. She tried to get out of the bed to greet me, but I ran to her and made her stay put for my hug. She told me that since I left, no one had come to visit her. I felt bad about that. Though she had a new roommate, she still wanted me to come back. I told her that I was not sure if I would return. I stayed with her a while. Before leaving, I helped her out of her bed to the window and pointed out my car so that she could see where I was parked. I told her that I would wave to her from the parking lot. With tears flowing down her face, she hugged me and then kissed me goodbye on my cheek. I felt like crying too, but I stayed strong until I reached the elevator.
When I got to my car, I looked up at the window, and there she was, waving—big grin and all. Her roommate was at her side, smiling and waving at me too. I felt so sad because I knew I would probably never see her again. Thankfully, Irinna couldn’t see the tears still welled up in my eyes. But at least she had some flowers and the memory of a short visit from my to help brighten her day as my friends brightened mine.