Heart, Echoes, Hydrogen

I have been laying in bed for an hour with my hand over my heart in a sort of horizontal pledge-of-allegiance pose, feeling the beats. Every so often, my heart hiccups. My chest swells up suddenly and briefly, like it’s taking a deep breath, then gets back to its normal work. I think this has to do with the heart murmur I have had since childhood, but I am not sure, and until recently I never bothered to learn exactly what a heart murmur is.

Last week I went for an echo-cardiogram. I put on a hospital gown backwards so the gentleman who runs the machine could reach in and press the sonogram wand against my ribs. It was cold due to the conductive gel, and rather uncomfortable—he had a firm touch. But I stopped noticing after a minute because on the screen, in a fuzzy greyscale, was my beating heart. Underneath, a sound wave, with peaks and valleys indicating blood flow. An audible whoosh whoosh and thump. At points, the technician would switch the display to a bright blue and red: blood coming in, blood going out. My heart’s valves opened and shut like thin, rapid-fire wings. He pushed the wand around and then we’d be looking at it all from a different perspective. My aortic valve. The convulsing muscle. He asked me to take a deep breath and hold it: to expand my ribcage, get my lungs out of the way, and allow my heart to fully expand, maximizing blood flow. The whoosh whoosh got louder.

My beating heart. It was elegant in a way I hadn’t expected, and deeply captivating. I’d joked to my friends that an echo was the only way to see one’s heart outside of one’s body, save for an Indiana Jones movie. I didn’t know it would be so beautiful.

The echo turned up nothing, and was a precautionary procedure anyway. A “just to be safe” test because of my heart murmur. The week before I’d had an MRI for a totally unrelated reason: an old shoulder injury that turns out to be a labrum tear. I’ll need surgery, but they’ll be able to fix it. I haven’t had much functionality in my left arm for a while because of the constant pain, so I’m glad there’s a solution. I googled the procedure, saw the thick metal tubes they use in arthroscopy sticking out of an anonymous man’s shoulder like pop-up turkey thermometers. His shoulder was covered in iodine and flecks of blood. He was powerfully built. An athlete? I wondered if there was even enough flesh on my bones for the surgeon to work with.

I’d never had an MRI, either, and was surprised to find that it was exactly as it is in movies: the long white tube, and the tray they strap you to. To be strapped to a tray isn’t an idea I relish. To be strapped down and pushed into a hole so narrow your nose nearly touches the top is absolutely unnerving. The nurse gave me earplugs, and covered those with a giant pair of headphones. “It’s loud,” she said. “Do you want music? We have Pandora.” I didn’t. I wanted to hear the machine as it did its work. The best term I’ve been able to coin is “medical techno.” Loud as hell, but rhythmic in changing patterns as the machine knocks around, honing in on different angles and aspects. They let me take home a disc of the images, and I spent that evening scrolling into and through my shoulder, from skin to fat to muscle to bone and back out again. Little holes dot the area under my scapula get bigger and then vanish beneath a rib. I’d asked the doctor about them, and he said they were arteries. He quickly added: “We don’t go anywhere near those.”

The body is magical and the body betrays. A beautiful and perfect and yet deeply flawed amalgamation of tissue, bone, blood. My heart on a monitor, ventricles in a symphony. But then the hiccup: my heart abruptly resets. Or my body on a slab, scrutinized by magnetic fields and radio waves—the hydrogen atoms inside me spinning up and then settling down again; the image being a capture of the states in-between. The queerness of it, your atoms collectively photographed by an enormous, noisy machine. I had no idea this was how an MRI worked. I asked afterwards, embarrassed to have just undergone a procedure unaware as to how it even worked. What all we subject ourselves to without knowing.