Three of the four of us had to have echocardiograms recently. Butterfly had hers first. She’s an old hand at doctor visits at the clinic, and always tries to bolt when we get near the front door, but her doctors are friendly, and the women at the front desk think she’s adorable, even though she’s too anxious to take the treats they offer her. Butterfly has to have an echo every six months, to keep an eye on her prolapsed valve and enlarged heart, and she does not enjoy the experience.
As soon as we checked in and sat down in the waiting room, my mostly non-shedding dog released hair all over my jacket and drooled on my shoulder and tried not to pee on the floor. She was curious about the other dogs sitting in various states of terror around her: the three month old Labrador who couldn’t contain her enthusiasm; an eighty-pound brindle Pit Bull who was hyperventilating under his owner’s legs; a cat hiding in her carrier. But the Chihuahuas seemed reasonable to her, and the floor itself was a potpourri of odoriferousness. She went adventuring for a few minutes at a time, and then asked to be picked back up for emotional refueling before making her next attempt to survey the territory.
She went in for her echo in the arms of a vet tech, trusting and blank. She trained herself to accommodate humans many years ago, living in the puppy mill, and still uses her old coping skills, pretending-she-is-not-where-she-is, as they slather cold goop on her chest and probe for pictures of her heart.
It is not surprising that her heart has been damaged, or that her heart is bigger than it is supposed to be. I could have told you that without all of the fancy equipment. After the test, her cardiologist came out to tell me that she was the same as she’d been six months before – with a leaky valve and an enlarged heart and no need, yet, for medication.
He couldn’t see on her pictures that she has learned how to chase squirrels and run like the wind and jump for chicken treats. He couldn’t know that she has developed a full range of expressions, and only once in a while falls back into her blank stare of old. But he believed me when I said so, and he was happy for her, and for me.
My echo was a different kind of experience. I’ve had a few in the past, and hated them all. One in particular, was both humiliating (changing into and out of the flimsy robe with the door half open and strangers walking by) and painful (half an hour of rib bruising pressure). This new doctor was specially recommended, and requested, by the new pulmonologist who is trying to figure out the possible causes for my shortness of breath.
The paper “gown” I had to wear was not much of anything, and the tech this time was male. In my three previous echo’s I’d only had female techs and assumed that was the norm. Stickers were placed above each breast and on my abdomen, and then wires attached. I was told to roll to my left, away from the tech, which was a relief.
I could hear the whoosh whoosh whoomp sounds of my heart coming from the computer behind me, but it was hard to concentrate because the probe was pressing hard against my breast bone. I could feel a black and blue mark forming and could only grit my teeth and tell myself it would be over soon. Whoosh whoosh whoomp, whoosh whoosh whoomp.
Because of the position I had been placed in for the test, on my left side with the probe at my chest and the tech leaning over my body, it almost felt like I was being hugged. It wasn’t sexual or disturbing. I did not expect this feeling at all. His hip and waist were pressed against my back, so that he could comfortably reach over and take the sound pictures of my heart. And despite the pain of the probe on my chest, the pressure of his arm over my side was a relief. I felt safe. I sensed no danger, no inappropriate or confusing energy from his body, just presence.
The doctor came in to look at the pictures, then, and he said that my leaky valve was, pfft, not much, and if you use an expensive machine like this you’re bound to see “something” but that doesn’t mean that “something” really means anything. He was annoyed that anyone would come for an echocardiogram and have a boringly normal heart to show him. Pffft. You’re fine, go home.
And normally, that dismissal is what would stay with me, but instead, this time, it’s the hug; the closeness and security of a stranger next to me. I don’t know what to make of it except to file it in the back of my mind, under surprising, and good.
Mom’s echo was the third in the series. She gets them regularly, though not as often as Butterfly, ever since her “minor” heart attack more than fifteen years ago now. It did not seem minor to me, or to her, at the time. The only explanations given were a leaky mitral valve and “stress”, which my doctor-brother pooh-poohed. The result, though, was that she started to take much better care of her health, and found a less stressful job, closer to home. The regular echos, and stress tests, and blood tests, are another thing she has accepted and rarely complains about, at least to me. I asked if it hurt. No. Or if it was humiliating. No. Or if the wait was long. No. She and Butterfly share this capacity, for going somewhere else in their minds when they need to not be with their bodies. It’s a skill I do not have.
Cricket has no such skill either. If she needed an echo they’d probably have to knock her out, like they do for an x-ray. Thank God, her heart is fine. Normal whoosh, normal whoomp. I know, because she likes to suffocate me in the morning, with her chest close enough for me to hear the sound pictures without any fancy equipment at all.
We’re all fine.