Read Pulse Online

Authors: Edna Buchanan


BOOK: Pulse
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For Ann Hughes,
true friend, free spirit,
and brave heart.


udden death saved his life.

His first conscious thoughts were not of that stranger whose death had saved him. Soon he would think of nothing else, but now, beyond the distant hums and hisses of the machines to which he was tethered, came only a single jubilant thought, I am alive!

He struck out for the surface, like a lethargic underwater swimmer, broke through and glimpsed his wife, Kathleen, and her sister, Ann, tearful at his bedside. Drifting, he sank back into sleep’s warm embrace and dreamed again of running, fast, strong and light on his feet. This time he was not alone. He saw his companion’s shadow and heard the familiar sounds of footfalls and measured breathing as they matched one another stride for stride.

*   *   *

What Frank Douglas wanted for the next twenty-four hours was the respirator tube out of his throat. No one seemed upset when he managed to remove it himself the following day.

He forced himself from bed on the third day, obsessed about washing his hair. Two nurses helped him to the sink. There was a mirror. He needed a shave, his hair was wild and he felt light-headed, but his elation grew as he stared at his reflection. The difference was striking. His color had returned, his skin glowed, his lips were rosy. His new heart was working.

The incision was sore. No surprise there, his rib cage had been cracked open and his beating heart removed, for God’s sake. He wondered, but did not ask, what they had done with that battered and swollen organ. Despite its failure, it had brought him a long way. But heart transplant patients recover far faster, he knew, than recipients of other organs. The heart is a pump, the transplant team had told him. That’s all it is. Replace a failing pump with a new one and the system sings.

Tentative and uncertain at first, Frank trudged a hospital treadmill and was pedaling a stationary bike inside of a week.

While dying, he had slept like the dead, but now that he had been restored to the living, vivid and chaotic dreams invaded his sleep, disturbing visions he could not quite recall upon waking, leaving him with a driving need, a yearning rooted, he was certain, in his fervent desire to go home.

The heart biopsy came first. Blood tests will detect rejection of a liver or a kidney, they told him, but the only way to learn if a heart is being rejected is from the heart itself. Surgeons opened the big vein in his groin, threaded into the right side of the heart lining and cut away a snippet of tissuefor microscopic scrutiny. The news, after twenty-four hours, was excellent.

Determining the precise level for his immune suppressants required exquisite fine-tuning. Started on doses of powerful drugs, he was weaned away, monitored carefully as the combination was adjusted up, then down in a delicate balancing act.

His new heart filled with fear and relief when Kathleen came to take him home. He studied her carefully, as though she were a stranger. She wore a simple white shirtwaist and sandals, her chestnut hair pulled back and tied with a ribbon. He already wore an eighteen-karat gold bracelet stamped with a crimson heart that would instantly identify him to any medic as a transplant patient, a life member of The Mended Hearts, Inc. Tucked under his arm, a small black leather bag containing the medications vital to his survival, an impressive array of pharmaceuticals.

The fat gel capsules of cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant, were the big guns, backed up by another antirejection drug called Imuran and powerful steroids that would continue to be reduced gradually after weekly heart biopsies. Tiny blood pressure tabs called Captopril would counter their side effects. Antibiotics would guard his immune-suppressed system against infection, while big chalky purple pills protected his stomach lining. Strong vitamins and calcium would counteract the bone-weakening steroids, with more multivitamins, iron and folic acid to boost his bone marrow.

He was to swallow them with a glass of milk twice a day, every day, precisely at ten o’clock,
. and P.M., for as long as he lived. It was crucial to maintain the same levels of medication in his body at all times. He was to never leave home again without that leather bag. Patients had been lost aftermissing only several doses, he was warned. By the time they showed symptoms, they were dying.

The immunosuppressants were to be stored and dispensed at temperatures no higher than eighty-six degrees. He and Kathleen were told the cautionary tale about another successful transplant patient more than once. An avid sportsman, the man loved to hunt. He did, leaving his medication locked safely in the car, parked in the sun. He died.

Frank was also issued a wallet-sized card for emergency use at any pharmacy should he ever find himself without his medication. The irony was not lost on him. Until his illness, he was a man who took pride in never swallowing anything stronger than aspirin. Now his prescriptions were instantly accessible from a computerized national registry to be filled immediately. Anytime, anywhere.

Leaving the safety of the hospital excited and frightened him. So many times he had been sure he would never leave alive. He had arrived dying. He was running when it all began, pounding to the crest of the Rivo Alto drawbridge under Miami’s teal blue sky, the water a turquoise shimmer, the brilliant day falling hot and humid around him. He had blamed summer heat and too much wine at dinner the night before for his unusual breathlessness. The bridge tender activated the caution lights and a forty-five-foot schooner hove to as warning bells sounded. The barrier gates slowly descended as he jogged in place, heart hammering as the bridge trembled and the span rumbled open. He checked his pulse rate on his runner’s watch, a twentieth-anniversary present from Kathleen—and did a quick double take.

What the hell? He shook his head, droplets flying, as he squinted at the timepiece. Nearly new, the damn piece of junk had gone totally haywire.

The schooner’s mast glided by. Its captain signaled the allclear with two taps of his horn, the bridge shuddered and began its creaky descent. Gears ground, bells clanged, the span inched down, then locked into place. Stiff wooden arms rose and clogged traffic streamed by. Low-hanging clouds swirled as he trotted out onto the metal span, a red-hot sun ballooned, blistering the sky, and the cargo-loading gantries at the port loomed on stiltlike metal legs, ungainly monsters out of science fiction. Was the bridge opening again beneath him? Or did that trembling come from his own legs? His skull, as heavy as a bowling ball, dropped back on his shoulders. The roadway rose resoundingly to meet him. A startled motorist leaned on his horn.

The bridgetender called 911.

Kathleen arrived at the emergency room pale and frightened, wearing tennis whites and out of breath. He wanted to go home, but they insisted on tests, which led to other tests and eventually to bad news.

The word the cardiologist used was
No easy way to tell a man he is dying.

Kathleen cried and clung to him, closer than they had ever been. Calm and analytical, as always, he consulted experts, calculated the odds and scrutinized projections.

The finest cardiologist in South Florida said he would die without a heart transplant. He nearly did. Now, after a year of waiting, weakening, liquidating his business, arranging his affairs and his own funeral during a roller-coaster ride of near misses, disappointments and false alarms, he was leaving the hospital not only alive, but with a future, in a wheelchair he tried to refuse. Hospital policy prevailed and he was rolled out as required. He would return for heart biopsies once a week for six weeks. Eventually there would be one a year. At the last moment the hospital suddenly seemed safer and more secure, but that moment passed. Nothing could compareto the familiar warmth of the sun on his skin, and the moist kiss of exhaust-scented city air. He was different now, but they were the same. He didn’t recognize the car Kathleen drove up onto the ramp. He had never seen it before.

“Nice.” He settled in beside her on a comfortable leather-covered seat. A Mercedes-Benz. Sleek and silver, it gleamed like a polished piece of fine jewelry. “Whose is it?”

“Surprise.” She smiled. “It’s our new car.”


“Yours, actually.” She pulled away from the curb and merged skillfully into moving traffic. “I still have the Catera.”

“You bought it yourself?” Kathleen had never car-shopped. He had always shielded her from the sharks. “Did you get a good trade-in on my Benz? It was in great condition. Why … ?”

“Only what the insurance company allowed.”

“Insurance company?”

“Shandi wrecked it.”

“She had an accident? Anybody hurt?”

“The good news is, air bags work. Nobody had a scratch, but the car was totaled.”

Their eldest daughter, Shandi, was nineteen. The accident, Kathleen explained, took place two days before his transplant. Her own car was being serviced, so Shandi had borrowed his to help friends move into an apartment near the university. They had cruised South Beach afterwards, but not for long. The other driver was drunk and had been arrested.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You were busy, sweetheart, surviving.” She patted his knee reassuringly.

“Anything else you’re not telling me?”

She rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Where shall I begin?”

“Is that why they’re not with you? Are they both in Dade County Jail?”

“Not yet, but it probably won’t be long.”

Frank laughed, and suddenly felt carefree. No problem exists, he thought, that we can’t face together. How many men win a second chance? He was going home to start life anew and keep the promises made when he thought he was dying.

He had loved his dark blue Mercedes sedan, but what the hell, it was only a car. What had somebody in the hospital said?

“Don’t love anything that can’t love you back.” That was it. Jack had said it, he remembered, poor dead Jack.

A muscular man with unruly red hair and eyes the shade of the sea, Jack was ten years younger, age thirty-four, a firefighter, with a pretty, plumpish wife named Danielle, four small children and pericarditis. A simple virus, nothing more serious than a strep throat, had destroyed the lining of his heart.

Frank liked the man, his family, and his wisecracking, smoke-eating buddies who blatantly ignored the families-only rule, when they dropped by to tell war stories.

Before their hearts failed, the two shared little in common, but he and Jack had shared a room, and talked endlessly about the futures they hoped for. They assiduously avoided one subject. Both were athletically built, roughly the same size, and they shared the same blood type. Heart transplants do not require extensive tissue typing, all that counts is size and blood type. Both were status one, in imminent danger of dying. They knew they could be competing for the same heart.

The night Jack was prepped for surgery, Frank was thrilled, but envious. Why him and not me? he wondered.

“I think I’m about to have a change of heart,” Jack drawled, as he was wheeled out on a gurney, his wife at his side.

“Now I know the real way to a man’s heart,” Danielle said, mirroring her husband’s bravado and black humor. “It’s through his rib cage.”

He’s got his chance, Frank thought. Will I ever get mine?

“You’re next, man.” Jack flashed a thumbs-up, as though reading his mind. “Hang in there, buddy.”

Frank was propped up in bed, reading a novel, when Dr. O’Hara, chief of the transplant team, appeared three hours later, still in scrubs.

“I wanted you to hear the news from me, Frank. I know you were friends.” O’Hara’s eyes were weary. “Jack crashed, died on the table. It was not the heart,” he emphasized, “the heart was good. But underlying medical complications unique to Jack’s own condition—”

“You say it wasn’t the heart,” Frank interrupted, “that it was good. Give
that heart.” He grasped the doctor’s arm. “You can do it!”

“Impossible.” Lost time, surgical procedures and the drugs injected had rendered the heart useless. The donor, a thirty-year-old motorcyclist, had been left brain-dead after a crash. His heart might have been saved, but was wasted. Frank was ashamed that he had grieved as much for that as he did for Jack.

“This one has side air bags as well,” Kathleen was saying.

“Hope to God we never need ‘em,” Frank muttered. They glided up the entrance ramp onto the Dolphin Expressway and headed east, a rush of metal and humanity roaring around them. He studied the faces of other motorists, strangers intent on their own dreams and destinations. He was back in the mainstream.

The car swooped down off the highway onto Biscayne Boulevard, past the scruffy window washers and their squeeze bottles, and approached the Venetian Causeway. Frank and Kathleen had decided years ago that one of the green islands in Biscayne Bay would be the ideal place to raise their daughters. Inspired by Venice, 1920's developers dredged, filled and built Rivo Alto, DiLido, San Marino and San Marco Islands, linked by twelve bridges that stretched between Miami and Miami Beach. High-rises stab the sky at each end, but the verdant, man-made islands between were quiet and residential.

The familiar landscape brought a massive lump to his throat. Had he been gone a hundred years, or only a moment? The lush greens were greener, the royal palms taller and more stately, the pentas madly blooming along the swale blushed a brighter pink than he ever remembered. He felt like a stranger seeing it all for the first time. The graceful columns, the arched entrance, the mullioned windows.

The wrought-iron security gate stood open. “I’ve missed you,” Kathleen said softly.

“Me too. I know it’s been tough on you, but things will be different now, I promise.”

They rolled triumphantly up the driveway’s gentle incline as people spilled out of the house. Shandi, and their youngest daughter, Casey, his sister-in-law Ann and her children, his secretary, Sue Ann, their next-door neighbors, the Bishops, their housekeeper, Lourdes, even Daisy, the dalmatian.

Balloons festooned the shrubbery and a huge handmade sign stretched between the live oaks flanking the driveway. Decorated with red hearts, it said:
Welcome Home, Dad.

BOOK: Pulse
11.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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