I was twenty-six the first time I held a human heart in my hand. It was sixty-four and heavier than I expected, its chambers slack; and I was stupidly surprised at how cold it was. It was the middle of the third week before I could look at her face, before I could spend more than an hour learning the secrets of cirrhosis, the dark truth of diabetes, the black lungs of the Marlboro woman, the exquisite painful shape of kidney stones, without eating an entire box of Altoids to smother the smell of formaldehyde. After seeing her face, I could not help but wonder if she had a favorite color; if she hated beets, or loved country music before her hearing faded, or learned to read before cataracts placed her in perpetual twilight. I wondered if her mother had once been happy when she'd come home from school or if she'd ever had a valentine from a secret admirer. In the weeks that followed, I would drive the highways, scanning billboards. I would see her face, her eyes squinting away the cigarette smoke, or she would turn up at the bus stop pushing a grocery cart of empty beer cans and soda bottles. I wondered if that was how she'd paid for all those smokes or if the scars of repeated infections in her womb spoke to a more universal currency. Did she die, I wondered, in a cardboard box under the Burnside Bridge, nursing a bottle of strawberry wine, telling herself she felt a little warmer now, or in the Good Faith Shelter, her few belongings safe under the sheet held to her faltering heart? Or in the emergency room, lying on a wheeled gurney, the pitiless lights above, the gauzy curtains around? Did she ever wonder what it all was for? I wish I could have told her in those days what I've now come to know: that it was for this--the baring of her body on the stainless steel table-- that I might come to know its secrets and, knowing them, might listen to the machine-shop hum of aortic stenosis in an old woman's chest, smile a little to myself and, in gratitude to her who taught me, put away my stethoscope, turn to my patient and say Let's talk about your heart.
From Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses by Cortney Davis and Judy Schaefer, published by the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2002 by University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved.