By Robert J. Rietz
Every January, a former work buddy invites me to Florida for a week of golf, restaurants, movies, and lying about our past work and current personal successes. COVID prevented our reunion the previous three years, and I hadn’t golfed in Asheville during that time either. But life is short, so I accepted his invitation this year and flew to Sarasota the second week in January.
I warned Keith not to expect much golfing brilliance and I didn’t disappoint with a week of slashing, hacking, and hooking. Golfing every day, I used muscles that had lain dormant for four years, but we enjoyed our time together because, well, because life is short. A 9 a.m. tee time on Monday—my getaway day—provided enough time for 18 holes, showering, and packing and getting to the airport on time. I walked through our front door at thirty minutes after midnight, an appropriate conclusion to a long and exhausting trip.
Tuesday was an understandable recovery day, but Wednesday I experienced a dull ache in my left chest and had difficulty catching my breath. I work Thursday mornings at the local food pantry, lifting cases of canned food and reaching up and down to stock shelves. After an hour of exertion, my dull ache progressed to a pain, and I was short of breath. Leaning on the door frame of the manager’s office, I told him, “I don’t feel good. I’m going home so my wife can drive me to the hospital.”
We arrived at the emergency room, and I presented my symptoms to the intake desk while Nancy parked the car. America’s medical profession flew into action, and I underwent an EKG, a blood test, and X-rays of my heart and lungs. An overstuffed recliner became my new home while I waited for the results of these procedures. And waited. And waited.
I was in limbo, no longer in the emergency room waiting area, but not assigned to a hospital room either. My comfortable lounge chair allowed me to observe the population of this triage room expand in the afternoon, with few people leaving it. My patience expired around 6 p.m.; I hadn’t eaten since a light breakfast and was no closer to a hospital room. “Are you going to admit me, release me, or am I going to spend the night in this recliner? At least give me something to eat.”
Squeaky wheels tend to get the grease and I was wheeled upstairs a couple of hours later with a turkey sandwich purchased by the ER nurse. He explained to the floor nurse—she was surprised by my unannounced appearance—that I was being transferred to an emergency room bed on her floor. He also told me I couldn’t eat again because a fasting test was scheduled at 7:30 in the morning. I tried to sleep with a 12-lead monitor taped to my torso and an IV in each arm.
I endured more tests the next morning after being awakened twice during the night to check my vital signs. At last, a hot meal, which energized my squeaky wheel. “What’s my status? Are you going to release me or admit me?” The floor nurse shrugged her shoulders.
More tests meant more wheelchair rides, and Nancy, who I thanked and sent home, delivered a care package of clean clothes and a snack. Life is short, but it drags when you’re forced to be still for hours at a time. (And daytime television is dreadful.)
My symptoms had dissipated, and I presumed my exam results were inconclusive, or I would have been a resident of the intensive care unit by this time. So why was I still there? Mental acuity fades as we age, but mine has not yet left me. I reviewed my last week, and the light bulb went on.
A wheelchair attendant interrupted my thoughts and told me I was free to go home. Nancy picked me up and I immediately searched online to confirm my suspicion. Yes, a strained chest muscle can imitate cardiac pain, and it also restricts a person’s ability to fully inflate their lungs. Next year I’ll practice golfing a few times before I visit Keith and won’t overextend my trunk muscles—because life is short.