I know what you’re thinking, how did mowing the lawn lead to me designing hospitals?
The day before I returned for my second year at Auburn University, I began the arduous task of removing the top portion of each individual grass blade of our oversized yard. Just the thought of this task made me tired, but this time was different, every single cell in my body decided it was time for a long nap. In addition to the weariness that sapped me, clamminess spread from the top of my much-frizzed hair to the tips of my bright-red toenails. This wasn’t the first time I felt this way. I turned off the torture device called “lawn mower,” went inside, laid down and bared down.
My mom, the quirky angel that she is, brought me my dinner – on the sofa, I might add, a big no-no in my house, one does not eat anywhere but at the table, posture erect, elbows down and food chewed before swallowing – and my dad finished the yard. Twelve hours later, my heart still beat as if I rode a roller coaster for the first time, leading to the command decision to take me to the hospital. Keeping my comfort in mind, mom wrapped me in a blanket, loaded me into the back of the itty-bitty car, and shoved a pillow under my head, even though it was a whopping 30 seconds away. Securely tucked in, off mom and I went to the hospital while dad headed out to buy tires, probably the reason I was put into the clown car instead of the SUV.
Since my very efficient father called ahead, the hospital was expecting me. We pulled in; hospital staff snatched me from the back of the car and rushed me through mint green halls in a wheel chair. The nurses plugged me into beeping and blinking machines that pumped me full of my heart’s preferred cocktail.
A TV, circa early 1990s, had nothing on the entertainment of my heart rate, an astounding 210 bpm (normally between 80-100 bpm). Now it was just a waiting game. Usually it took about 30 minutes for my heart to respond to the medications, but the 30-minute mark came and went with no changes. At this point, I gave in and fell asleep. Every now and then, I lifted my two-ton eyelids to a scene similar to one of those flipbooks, but I kept missing large chunks of pages. I saw mom in one corner and then the other without seeing how she got there. Only when two nurses lifted me for an x-ray did I notice the pain in my arm. Then everything stopped. No more alternating from hustling to waiting, there was only me in a stretcher zooming to the helicopter.
My first helicopter ride! I was so excited and made sure to tell everyone around me when we took off, even though I could see nothing from my stretcher. After a lifelong love of airplanes and beginning my studies in Aeronautical Engineering this was my moment! And…they put me to sleep.
When I woke up my life changed. In a small, private room at the regional academic medical center, I saw my mom and dad for the first time in what felt like days. My mother explained with tears in her eyes that I had a heart attack and thanked everyone she could think of that I was young enough for her to say, “You are on the road to recovery.”
I can vividly remember my care team:
- The Harvard student, undergoing a sleep study, with cables that reminded me of my favorite sci-fi books in her hair.
- The head nurse with a smile so warm it could melt the ice on Europa. She made me feel like a human and helped me maintain as much dignity as an ICU patient can have, which is much less than you’d think.
- My lead physician who made me laugh, put my parents at ease and, though I didn’t know it at the time, would turn out to be my real-life hero. A few months down the road from this episode, he was able to rid me of my heart affliction.
I also remember the facility; the ICU was quiet and spacious enough for my entourage. The nurses’ sight lines to all the rooms excellent. Nevertheless, the ICU is not a long-term hotel. Just as boredom began to make me want to climb the walls, a sure sign that I was healing, they moved me to the general inpatient unit. This was prior to the System’s constructing their new cardiac care building. Going from ICU to the shared room in which I now found myself was a rather jarring experience.
The Unit was loud and the rooms were cramped. My poor, frazzled parents had to stand, nurses couldn’t see into any of the rooms, and it took forever for someone to come when called. Later I realized that what I thought was inattentiveness was actually expanded travel distances. Angels must have been watching over me because I only spent one night in this room before my discharge.
I left the facility as a different person. I knew the care I received was the best a person could ever hope for, but marked by the fact that the facility was holding them back. For years, my mind dwelled on designing the next SR-71 recon aircraft, now it is my passion to improve lives through design. The second my feet hit Auburn’s brick-paved campus, I took my student records folder from the engineering department to the College of Architecture Design and Construction.
I was greeted with a smile, and told with this same smile that I had to be accepted into an intensive 10-week summer program that had two rounds of cuts. Only after escaping the X-Acto blade not once, but twice, could I say that I was in the Architecture Program. I’m not sure what response she expected, but judging by the awkward laugh and confused smile I am certain it wasn’t “Fine, I can do that.”
Next to saying “I do,” those words were the best I ever uttered. The initial passion of finding my true calling has never worn off. No need to shine this old penny, I still love designing places of healing. If I can make one person’s experience better, be it the patient, family, clinician or physician, then I have succeeded in my job.