The view from here

Living dangerously

5 minute read
On the way to Abington Hospital (at right). You can't quite see Señor Salsa. (Photo by Kile Smith.)
On the way to Abington Hospital (at right). You can't quite see Señor Salsa. (Photo by Kile Smith.)

Abington Hospital’s emergency entrance is across Old York Road from Señor Salsa in Abington, Pennsylvania. I note it only because this is the first time I’ve looked squarely at the restaurant. I’ve driven past it at least four times a week for the last 20 years, but today I’m seeing it through the back window of an ambulance. The world looks different that way.

Eight electrodes stuck to me are wired into machines. “We did an eight-lead,” says Steve — one of the EMTs — to the triage nurse. “Lead” is pronounced as something that leads to something else. In the hospital, I’ll be promoted to 12-lead.

New perspectives

When I was a child, my neighbor Carol Beth’s father had a station wagon with a rear-facing back seat. Carol Beth and I rode in it to Cooper River Park in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. A rear-facing back seat is the way for a child to travel. A child doesn’t need to look forward in a vehicle because a child, facing any direction, travels with hope.

As we wind around the driveway, I ask the EMTs if they’ve ever gone to Señor Salsa. It’s a place you’d hang, I’d think, if you frequented the hospital. Steve hasn’t. Mike, studying a slip of paper tongued out at him from a machine, shakes his head and says, “Naw.”

They take their time with me, ten minutes, and no siren for the three-minute drive from church, where they picked me up. It’s Palm Sunday. Three of us chanted the Passion story. In a liturgical church such as ours, three singers — low, medium, high — sing Christ, the Narrator, and Everybody Else. I’m the low voice, so I sing Christ’s words; I’ve been singing Christ for years.

We chanted and returned to the choir loft, and that’s where I fainted. Yes, I sang Jesus and fainted.

Steve and Mike tell me they get church calls. Concerts and churches. Two venues I frequent.

Common enough to be cat-memed. (Image via
Common enough to be cat-memed. (Image via

The first time

It happened to me once before. I was at a concert in a church (talk about living dangerously) 35 years ago. My wife Jackie was singing in the old Pennsylvania Pro Musica, at Christ Church in Old City Philadelphia. During the concert, I started feeling sick to my stomach.

Something I ate? I’d better leave — no, don’t walk out in the middle of the concert. Well, you’d better. No, maybe it’ll pass. It isn’t passing. Leave. Leave. Right. Now. I got up and walked to the back. An usher opened the door for me. I tilted. Everything went black.

I woke up on a bench outside, surrounded by people asking if I was okay. “I remember leaning,” I said.

“He caught you,” someone pointed. The second usher; I hadn’t seen him. He smiled a flat “aw, shucks” smile at me and nodded.

From the choir risers, Jackie had noticed commotion in the back of the church. She learned only later that I was the commotion.

Common enough to be cat-memed. (Image via
Common enough to be cat-memed. (Image via

How it happens

What happened then, and now, was vasovagal syncope. “He’s a vaso,” I heard Steve say, vaso pronounced "vay-zo." Vaso is blood, vagal is nerve, and syncope, like syncopation, goes against the beat.

The brain detects a loss in blood pressure and shuts you down before anything bad, like dying, happens. The brain needs blood, and I guess the quickest way to accomplish that is to make you horizontal. Sure, you could hit your head on the way down, and if you’re alone you could bleed out and die, but that’s a chance the brain’s willing to take. If you don’t bleed to death, the brain gets its blood, pressure regulates, and you come back.

The triage nurse (“You’re lucky, you’ve got the best one,” Steve whispers as I’m wheeled in) is one of many who will question me. “Do you take drugs? Are you on any medication? Did you eat breakfast? Are you depressed? Have you — these days, I have to ask — have you ever dreamed of killing yourself?”

I don’t ask her why “these days,” because I don’t want her to view any question from me as weaseling. No, no, yes, no, and no.

All is calm, all is bright

Narrator, my good friend, was under the weather and just made it, singing his part — touch and go near the end, actually. Afterward, in the loft, he started tilting, and that’s when my vaso started rope-a-doping my vagal. Not the sight of blood, not locking my knees, but seeing my friend buckle: that did it. He sat down and I reeled.

Come on, no, not again. Sit down, it’s the Prayer of the Church. Everybody’s heads are bowed. Hear our prayer. You could leave. No, just sit. Hear our prayer. It’s hot. Put your head down, breathe, don’t throw up. Hear our prayer. Just rest, yes. Dark. Breathe. Good, good. Darker. Hear. Breathe. Hot. Good. Our...

When I came back, I was looking at the sanctuary ceiling from the choir pew, laid out, covered in sweat. Church was silent. My Palm Sunday palm bowed near my head from the hymnal rack. Faces peered down at me: my choir friends; a doctor and a nurse from the congregation; Jackie, who should be sitting at the organ. Our youngest daughter had tears in her eyes; what could she be thinking? I tried to smile at her, but don’t know if it took.

Two hours of tests later, the hospital concludes my heart’s good, my ranges to two decimal places are good, everything’s good. I fainted, it happens. My friend never passed out.

Because men joke, we will, through our connected mortality, joke about this. Driving home, looking ahead on Old York Road again, I think to him; to my friends peering down with love through fear; to Jackie, holding my hand tightly; to the bright and shining eyes of our youngest daughter, who is no longer a child.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation