At 6 years old, dying is something that happens to other people. Actually, it doesn’t happens at all, outside of funny (temporary) cartoon deaths and some distant relatives whose funerals you aren’t allowed to attend anyway. Aside from playing dead with your tongue hanging out oh-so-convincingly, you do know one thing for sure – that there’s no way you’re gonna die, ever.

So I wasn’t scared when they told me something was wrong with my heart.

Having a twin made my diagnosis easier. We were constantly compared, with me the less active twin, tiring quicker and underweight. She explored the world with fervour, I was the one who couldn’t be bothered if a toy was out of reach. She started walking first, stumbling until she got it right, while I watched for two months until I simply got up one day and wasting no time getting on with it.

These could have just been personality traits, but then the incidents started. The first was when I went swimming at Lilongwe’s Capital Hotel with my Dad and my sister. We returned home with my sister bouncing into the next exciting activity, but I felt exhausted. I told my Mum “I’ve got a headache.” Also, everything I saw was tinted blue, like I still had “swimming pool” in my eyes. What I didn’t know at the time was my temperature was 2 degrees below normal.  But I completely recovered in about an hour.

The second time it happened at a friend’s house. I felt so ill that I was carried, again complaining of a headache, with low temperature. Mum took me to my grandparents, a doctor and a nurse, so when they panicked, so did my mother. They got me into a hot bath as soon as possible and I recovered.

The third time, I arrived home from school – headache, tired. This time my skin was grey, sweaty and clammy. Mum rushed me to the hospital and refused to let me sleep, no matter how much I complained how tired I was. She didn’t tell me she was worried I wouldn’t wake up…

It was malaria season and the waiting room was crowded with sick kids, but one look at my alien-grey tint and everyone let us through. The doctor ran some tests, but found nothing, and saw that I had recovered within an hour. His best guess was malaria. Mum said it couldn’t be, since the symptoms were so different. The doctor told us to come on a quieter day.

The next Sunday they did a full barrage of tests and sent us to Blantyre for an echocardiogram. That was when they found the hole. Large, but difficult to detect any other way, was an opening between the left and right atriums of my heart. For non-doctors, this meant oxygen-less blood was mixing with oxygenated blood and being pumped around the body. The effect was that the right side of my heart was pumping harder than it was meant to, making it enlarged.

When Mum explained the symptoms, the doctor said this type of defect exists from birth, almost never shows symptoms, until one day the heart simply fails from overwork. Many only get diagnosed post mortem. Unrelated, my name means “good luck”.

To get the surgery I had to go to a special heart hospital in South Africa. Mum booked almost a year in advance (when internet wasn’t yet a thing, which was a minor miracle). My parents took my twin and me to South Africa, leaving my baby brother with my grandparents. The day before surgery, we enjoyed ourselves at the Johannesburg Zoo blissfully unaware that we were the only black family there. In 1994, South Africa was freshly out of Apartheid but hadn’t quite kicked some of its habits.

I was checked into the ward on a Monday for a battery of tests. Mum stayed as my guardian, while Dad and my sister stayed at a relative’s house. Oh the stories she returned with! She had tasted something amazing called a double-dog, which was two hotdogs in a bun, while I was stuck getting poked and prodded when I felt perfectly fine, thank you very much!

Surgery has a way of making you feel a lot less fine though. In adulthood I had to be reminded about some of the details of that time, but I remembered surgery. Getting rolled into the operating theatre, watching my parents’ faces disappear while masked strangers stared at me. A friendly doctor telling me to count to 10 as they gave me a mask to match theirs, never getting past “3” and worried that I had failed the test…

Waking up… too weak to even open my eyes. Not knowing the time. Giving up and falling asleep again.

Waking up properly. Bright whiteness, plugged into tubes and pipes like a post-apocalyptic cyborg. In a cocoon of drapes and beddings, feeling like only this corner of the world existed. Mustering my raspy voice to ask for water, only thirst existed in this world. Sleeping, waking up, nausea, just awfulness. Mum by my side at some unknown time. I was coincidently put in the same ICU bed as my grandmother had been for a triple bypass 2 months earlier.

Later I was told that while I was asleep, my sister insisted on seeing me despite my parents discouraging her, and she got somewhat traumatised. Oops! As I was recovering, some of my relatives came to see me, including my fraternal grandmother and my uncle. When I was recovered enough to leave the ICU, I was given a choice to go to the cardiac recovery ward with all of the other “zipper cases”, or the children’s ward. Since most of the zippers where elderly folks, I picked the kids. Duh.

After some physiotherapy, the next stage was removing my stitches. I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy. The cruellest nurse I’ve ever met pulled them out – one by excruciating one. The more I cried, the more she would snap at me and pull harder. That experience counts as my first encounter with torture. When she overheard my mum telling my grandmother that she would report her, she started being nicer to me. But that wasn’t the memory which lingered for years.

Four days after my operation I was wheeled out of the hospital, and my dad and my sister met us on the foyer. She was grinning while carrying a big pink teddy bear. My dad was carrying an identical bear, which he handed to me. It was too heavy to carry so handed it to my sister almost immediately. I didn’t like teddy bears after that.

When I got home, everyone gave me a lot more attention that I was used to as the quiet twin. The most common question was “How are you feeling?” with a sympathetic expression. I felt like I was miscast in a play, where everyone treated me like a wretched soul while I was more concerned about what book I’d read next. When I asked mum why everyone was asking how I was feeling, she explained that I’d had a serious operation and they were worried.

So I knew exactly what to do. I wasn’t going to disappoint them, as I knew from an early age that the show must go on. So whenever anyone asked how I was, I was appropriately mournful and self-pitying, appearing sicker by the day! But when the enquiries weren’t ending, I asked Mum what I’m supposed to say since I felt fine and they expected me not to be. The conflict! Mum said, “If you’re fine, then tell them that.” Thank goodness. That was getting boring fast.

As I grew, the stitches fell off, the Scar became a part of me, and I rarely think about it. I learnt later, when I met two other people with the Scar, that this was a luxury. One woman with the Scar had follow up operations every year and was on meds for the rest of her life. There are really only four times I have given the Scar any complex thought.

During my adolescent growth spirt I slouched, which caused a curve in my spine. That curvature pinched a nerve which was somehow connected to my op, and caused unbearable pain trouble breathing. I had a month of physio to straighten it.

During university when I lived in a residence filled with med students. Gosh, I love med students, they’re so excited at the fascinating medical misfortunes of others. I’ll never forget the disappointment on a student’s face when he heard my “annoyingly” normal heartbeat on the stethoscope.

Then, whenever I go to the dentist, I have to take a round of antibiotics before any procedure as a precaution to prevent infections reaching my heart.

Finally, when the writing competition I’m trying to win asks me to write a non-fiction story about my childhood. And who wouldn’t use this one?

***

Click HERE to vote.

44 thoughts on “Straight Through The Heart

  1. I love it! Brought a tear to my eye and then a smile on my face.

    I am forever grateful that the doctors caught it in time, even if I didn’t realise the severity at the time.

    So many things I didn’t realise we’re happening through my excitement of the double dog.

    Xxxx

  2. I love it!!! Wow! I had no idea you went through that as a child. Am glad it ended with a smile though.

  3. I’m a bit jealous.. I adore twins. Well done, Ekari. 🙂 You sound like you don’t just have a strong heart, it’s also a big one. Best of luck.

  4. Now I get it … the heart your incredibly talented words flow from, that wounded, victorious heart. No wonder. It was an honor reading you these few weeks, Ekari, hopefully there’ll be more. Good luck.

    1. Awww, thank you Chisom, your words are heartwarming. I wouldn’t say my heart is wounded anymore (not by physical operations anyway hehe), but I will say, there will definitely be more stories. While you’re waiting, I have a feeling you’ll like one of my older stories called Montague’s Last, set in a 17th century French dungeon:

      http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/2016/03/behind-story-montagues-last.html

      More of my writing is on my blog, which you’ll find if you click on my name. Your support has also been an honour!

    1. Well i have always admired you guys,i remember ome xmass when we were at gogos house i told my late mom that those girls are nice people,being nice helps you to be strong and am glad you are and have been strong about it,i wosh you luck,o loved the story

  5. Wow! Ekari girl! What a real life story! And the telling of it is just awesome! A masterpiece! You take the reader through different emotions reading this story, sadness, crying, laughter, relief, and even unbelief, yes, the unbelief that you in your writing are able to make the reader see yoyr experience through a child’s eyes and at the same time appreciate the seriousness through the adult eyes, a double entendre, not easily accomplished by many writers. The suspense! I could not stop reading, I had to know what happened, are you okay…after going through this uhmm, not so much of a disease, a defect…? More like a catastrophic experience…, I’d say. And I finished reading with a smile on my face, yes, you my girl are very much okay, more okay than many of us born with our hearts whole! I’ll say you keep going my girl! Competition or no competition! You are a master in the art of writing. And I salute you!

  6. Good writing Ekari! Even though I know that part of your life story…, still managed to get me interested to read it all the way to the end. Shows your talent. It’s not a surprise you made it this far

  7. what a nice story….are you born again???..by God’s grace you were saved,not because of the doctors…

  8. Ekari this is the killer story gripping, interesting and yet so real. I have enjoyed this piece of writing the most. My heart is still beating with excitement.

  9. The journey with you the past few weeks has been awe-spiring! And every story you write is captivatingly better than the last- such a rare talent! Very few writers – the likes of Jeffrey archer and Dan brown- are able to capture my undivided attention. And that you have done! I could vote for you all over again. I hope you win Ekari! Can’t wait to read your big ‘novel’

    1. Thank you for your support! Good news is I have more of my stories already out, while you wait for that novel!

      See: Montague’s Last (http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/2016/03/behind-story-montagues-last.html) about a 17th century Chewa slave in a French dungeon, struggling to make his final mark on the world

      See: The Blue Ball (http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/p/flash-fiction-blue-ball.html) about an alien who discovers her favourite planet, and is also the story which got me into The Writer competition’s top 12

      See: The Elephant in the Room (http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/p/the-elephant-in-room-by-ekarivalerie_3.html) about a Malawian university student in Cape Town who gets a part time job in a parallel universe but ends up with more than he bargained for.

      Keep watching my blog for new updates on stories!

      Much Love

  10. First of all, you went through a major experience and came out great. Glad for that. Glad your heart is still working 🙂
    As for the quality of the storytelling though… it was unfocused and rant-y and bit too much like a Facebook post, not really like the creative non-fiction of a serious writer. If you had focused on the lead up to your operation, created some tension around that, and ended with the big recovery, that would have been great. The joke about the writing competition at the end took out most of the emotional weight of the story as well. Like something you threw in just to win some ‘haha’ votes. Remember the judges thoughts weigh more than votes. I guess they will be looking for stuff of this quality or higher: http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/who-will-claim-you/
    I have read your fiction so far in this competition and liked it so I expected this one to blow me away. It was disappointing. Anyway, best of luck and since you’re in the final 3 you’ve already won something so… well done.

    1. Thank you for your support McDonald! I’m glad to have held your attention for this long, and it’s too bad that this story didn’t satisfy your literary thirst as you expected.

      Regarding your critique about the last line, it was actually intentional because I don’t like to take myself too seriously, and don’t want to give the impression that I still live in that “critical health” space. I’m doing quite well, and wanted to show that I can even laugh about it. I do appreciate what you’ve said though, and will note that for future work in this genre.

      Perhaps you’d like a bit more insight on the writing process. I write “behind the story” features for all my writing on my blog: (http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-writer-2016-week-4-creative-non.html) <—- this is for Week 4, but I have short articles for all of the other weeks too, do check them out.

      I'd also like a chance to show you some past work which I had more than a week to hone and refine. Start with Montague's Last, an historical dark fantasy short story I worked on for 3 years: http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/2016/03/behind-story-montagues-last.html

    2. funny thing is that the end was the best part for me.
      I did not like the telling of the story too. Looked like the first draft of a first time attempt at writing.
      Must congratulate you on making the final three.
      Won’t stop me from saying “all the best.”

    3. I sent a reply, but it seems it wasn’t approved. Trying again!
      Right, so in brief, Thank you for following my work, I’m glad you enjoyed my stories! It’s a shame you didn’t like this one, but you’ve made fair points. I wrote a light ending intentionally, because I wanted to let the reader know that I am ok now. I will note your point in future work under this theme.

      I have a blog post about how I wrote this story and I did the same for each week. I think someone like you who is interested in the story in depth may find this interesting:

      http://ekarimbvundula.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-writer-2016-week-4-creative-non.html

      Explore my blog to read more of my past short stories (which I had much longer than a week to work on), especially Montague’s Last.

      Thanks for your support!

  11. Just followed it from facebook and I am impressed that you can tell a painful experience in such a great manner. Can’t wait to read more of your work. Well done Ekari.

  12. As I was reading this, I was hoping you had a blog because there’s got to be more where this came from. Quite a tear-jerker. Great piece

  13. Wonderfully narrated.
    The ease with which word after word dovetails with the ones before is quite awe-inspiring.
    Thank you tremendously for courageously sharing such significant events in your life.
    May your story bring you success, Ekari.

  14. As the moment came it gave You words,
    Not just words with letters but words that
    Has an impact in them,as the impact Got mixed with the God given ability ,The story is teaching something to someone!,
    I believe even The pen itself it expressed its sorrow as it was writing down this, 🙂
    But I’m not here to sympathize but I’m here to encourage with the grace of God with the talent Your having it has a place for You in life and thus excellency! May God bless You I’m seeing you winning!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *