For a brief, yet poignant time in my childhood, I lived in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania – just 40 minutes west of Philadelphia, where I was a patient at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The five years I spent in this little town brought me the most profound experiences that would shape the adult I am today, from the two wonderful elementary teachers whom I still attempt to keep in contact, to the two life saving open heart surgeries (performed by Dr. Norwood himself, if you don’t mind a little horn tooting), to forming the two most meaningful relationships of my life; that of my cat, Mr. Destiny (hello, crazy cat lady here) and my best friend, KD.
Those five years saw me in and out of the hospital more times than all the rest of my years outside of the 19406 ZIP code put together. My heart “problem” (as we so lovingly referred to it) was well known throughout the town, especially those unfortunate individuals who happened to either work or attend or have some affiliation with the elementary schools I attended because I was at school just as much, if not more, as I was at home. My health reached new levels of high tension drama, one that could quite easily rival any prime time medical show (I’m looking at you, Dr. House!), and one instance my heart having a throw down with me garnered enough attention to send me in local King of Prussia infamy that still follows me today.
During the winter of early 1990, between my second and third open heart surgeries, I was enjoying a peaceful morning in my first grade class. My teacher, Ms. Twiss, chose myself and another little girl to take the slips of attendance and lunch orders up to the office and cafeteria, respectively. This little girl and I…did not get on well. She did not like the way I looked, and I did not like the way she displayed behavior common to a sociopath. We made the walk up to our respective destinations in silence, I to the office first while she went on to the cafeteria. As we were instructed to go together, I knew we would have to go back together as well. I waited in the main foyer for her return from the kitchen when BAM! Everything went black.
The next thing I knew I was lying on the overstuffed, split-pea green vinyl bed in the nurses office while phones were blaring, people were rushing in and out, talking in rapid, tense tones and panic rose in the air. The nurse, dear Mrs. Noll (whom I would later see in my adult life and thank profusely, though there are no words to express the gratitude I feel for this woman) told me to lie still, my parents were on their way.
I caught on that something was amiss, though I laughed it off and insisted I was fine, cradling my head in my arms Ferris Bueller style to emphasize my point. That is when I saw it – my thick, mint green and pale pink woolly sweater leaping in rapid palpitations from my chest, over and over and over, as if it had suddenly been given the Powder of Life. It was tachycardia – and after the initial shock wore off, embarrassment set in. WHY HERE AT SCHOOL? OMG!
My parents were soon by my side, paramedics on their way but caught in traffic. TRAFFIC? Traffic! What could they do; they were a good twenty minutes away and I needed to get to CHOP now. It was decided that the spacious field beyond the baseball diamond would be made use of by the hospital-issued helicopter and I would be air-vaced to the Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia. I believe my reaction was, and I may be paraphrasing, “Rad!”
Embarrassment was gone, and what I oft refer to as my patent False Bravado (a self-preservation tool) officially kicked in. I could hear the principal speaking with my classmates in the cafeteria; she had wisely decided to hold an impromptu assembly so as to keep little busybodys away from the windows as the medics strapped me in my own luxury seat and wheeled me to my first class position on the waiting helicopter. On our way out, I caught sight of local news vans and told the medics my left side was my best side. They laughed and secured me in my sweet new ride, my dad buckling up near me, ready to join in on the adventure.
When I eventually returned to school, my best friend proudly showed me the newspaper where my aerial had a write-up and told me I even had a spot on the local news. Dude, I was famous.
Fame is fickle, though, and not a year went by afterward nor in the years after I would move from Pennsylvania and return irregularly for visits that a person stopped me, mid-conversation and cried, “Oh my GAWD! You’re Rachael Faught? You’re the Little Girl with the Heart Problem? You’re the one that got picked up in a helicopter? I totally thought you were dead!”
Moved to Fresno…dead…you know…same difference?
(Just kidding…go Bulldogs!)
I’m never insulted, however, because I always take great comfort in the fact that upon realizing who I am, though perhaps we had very little interaction as children, these well-meaning individuals always seem extraordinarily relieved to discover I am alive and (relatively) well.
Twenty years later, their peace of mind at unburdening them with thoughts of a fallen peer still never fails to bring a smile to my face, and determination of survival to my spirit.