Thursday, January 15, 2009

How Myoko Sakatani Saved My Life

It was the summer of 1969. On August 15, thousands of the Woodstock nation gathered at Max Yasgur's farm for the greatest music festival of the modern era. A month earlier, on July 16, the Apollo 11 spacecraft carrying astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins blasted off for the moon. That same day, I had visited a friend's house in Granada Hills. We had graduated high school just weeks before and we opened a few cans of Old English 800. I got drunk for the first time.

I went home to sleep, the world swirling at a nauseating clip around the bed. Around three in the morning I woke to a blistering headache, took some aspirin, and went back to sleep. The following morning, the 17th, I felt woozy, and still nursed a powerful headache. It was lawn-mowing day, and I was in the backyard with the push mower, running even rows across the grass in the hot sun while listening to updates of the Apollo flight on my transistor radio.

That night I went to sleep with an unabated headache and an odd twinge in my left arm. No matter how I turned in bed, it wouldn't go away. And around dawn, I woke to a suffocating chest pain. My mother woke and telephoned the doctor, who recommended in customary fashion that I take some aspirin and go back to sleep.

But I couldn't sleep, and the pain grew worse. My peripheral vision was flagging too, and I felt like I was descending down an ever narrowing crevasse. My mother got me up and into the Rambler, then we drove for the emergency room.

The doctors took one look at me, wheeled me into the coronary care wing, fitted anti-embolism stockings on my legs, and injected my stomach with a blood thinning agent that burned like a wasp sting. I spent the rest of the day in a blackout.

In the morning, the Apollo astronauts had begun orbiting the moon, and I was far from Earth as well. I woke as a cloud, floating on the ceiling of my hospital room, washed in a purple cloud, gazing from what seemed miles away at my inert shape in the coronary care bed, wires and tubes running out of my body to a bank of machines. Considering the brutality of the pain of the previous day, I felt wonderful. Peaceful. Joyous.

But moments later my mother walked in, the doctor behind her. She sat on the bed and wept. The doctor was talking to her. And at once, I felt as if I were tumbling, sucked down into a whirlpool of graying light, spinning deep into darkness.

The next time I woke, I was back in bed, listening to the beep of the heart monitor, gazing at the dull morning light streaming through the window. The Eagle had landed, and Neil Armstrong was taking humankind's first steps into moondust. I didn't know about that. What I knew was that my chest ached, my head spun, and that I felt very alone in a small room where nurses watched through a plate glass window.

One of them was Myoko Sakatani. She spent hours at my side over the following week, talking softly, reassuring me that all would be well. I was surely the only 18 year-old to ever have occupied center stage at the coronary care unit.

Edwin Zalis, head of the UCLA heart team, was brought in to diagnose the trouble. He said I had myocarditis, an infection of the heart lining. Usually fatal. Cause uncertain. I would need plenty of undisturbed rest. I was lucky, he said, to have been an athlete on the high school track team my senior year, running the hills above campus and strengthening my heart.

Myoko came in and out of the care unit in her white uniform. She held my hand. And when I asked to see my girlfriend she said that there were orders that only my immediate family could have access. I asked again, and she shook her head. The days and eves were a long blur of intravenous meals, bedpan interventions, and powerful drugs. There were other patients in the room now. I recall a man dying in the bed adjacent to mine and his monitor alarm ringing with sharp insistence until the nurses turned it off.

A week later, I had been wheeled out of the coronary care unit into the regular population. Even so, Myoko came to visit. And one evening, after everyone had gone and the halls were dark, Myoko opened the door to my room and led my girlfriend over to the bed.

* * *

I had been released at the end of the month. My father collected news magazines of the Apollo triumph and brought them to my bed at home. As I learned to walk again and build strength, I toured the neighborhood, hand-in-hand with my sweetheart. We watched the throngs at Woodstock on the television.

That year America sank further yet into the mire of Vietnam and my draft number had been called for the lottery. I was chosen 19 out of 365, destined for active duty. But Dr. Zalis said I was in no condition to serve; he wrote a letter to the draft board, and I was excused from military duty. I would go to college in the fall to study journalism at the end of the summer of 1969 when Myoko Sakatani saved my life.

Years later I contacted the hospital to try and find her. But the personnel department reported that she had left the hospital and there was no way to track her. Since then, the hospital itself has closed. But I found my own way. When I look at the moon and think of men walking there, I think of my longest summer and say a prayer of thanks.


Mari said...

Myoko saved you, and then your heart might have saved you as well.

Char said...

this was beautifully written. thank you.

I have an affinity for all things space too.

Gabby said...

Then, Char, you'd probably like this one....

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