It’s time to walk out into the evening and bus home. But I move slowly, then stop and listen as Marianne talks on the phone. Hearts usually get cut out at midnight, but not today. There’s one getting cut out right now. And she can get in. And it’s clear that I cannot leave. I will snub that bus like it snubbed me last week when I didn’t stand close enough to the curb. A knot of us decide to tag along.
Above the operating room, there’s a pale blue bulge of window, like a surfacing whale, at the center of the dark, carpeted viewing room. Nowhere to sit, but your face and chest can sink into the glass . . .
. . . and when I look down and locate that bit of space on my retinas that has become a throbbing human heart in a spread open ribcage, I think it looks just like when you open up the washing machine to add a piece of underwear dropped in the hall, wet with a ruffled unevenness and crazy with being alive.
Completely crazy and they’ve got to stop it. Off to the side, the new heart floats in a silver pan covered in white plastic and filled with cold water and potassium. It’s striped in adipose like bacon. A pump makes the plastic change shape, breathe, pushing the heart up and down. The aorta and the pulmonary artery wave among their own branches, fat like anemone fingers, the circular, open ends multitudinous like the eyes of a beholder.
No one’s even looking at it right now, not the four operators, not the anesthesiologist flicking glances over to the patient’s surrendered palms at the edge of the sheet, not the resident at the end of the table repocketing his iPhone. I could run in there and snatch it. Set it free. It would bumble away into the sky like an oversoaped bubble. It would strike fear and electric bolts of shorted-out attempts to beat into other hearts.
They stop the old heart, cut the tubes, pull it out, and drop it in a tiny bucket, where it flops and spreads out of shape in relief. The new heart goes into the cavity and seems to disappear while the head surgeon rejoins each major artery and vein. I check the time and try to guess when the next bus might show up, but it doesn’t really matter because the new heart hasn’t started beating yet.
Some hearts start beating as soon as there’s enough blood in and around them. The heart doesn’t even need the brain to beat. In fact, the main communication between the brain and the heart (through the vagus nerve) tells the heart to slow down. Whoah horsey says the superego of the body. Steve and I theorize that if you dropped a raw heart into a beaker full of oxygenated blood, it’d be good to go. I picture strange fish tanks, or the moat around the fortress of a nemesis, churning with the organs of those whose deaths you must avenge. The heart of your beloved, fatty chunks hanging off.
The operation trudges on. The new heart begins to look very dignified, held up in its new place. It’s just Marianne and me now at the lambent glass globe. She thinks it’s only got the pulmonary vein to go. I later realize that she was sticking around so there’d be someone to pick me up if I passed out at the sight of all the blood. The sheet is splattered with it; one surgeon holds a sucking siphon to the cavity every now and then, like a dentist deals with drool.
The heart-lung machine technician turns off one of the spinning wheels and the blood circulating through one of the tubes hesitates, splotches, and seems to dry. And still the new heart hasn’t begun to beat. The head operator takes out his paddles and gives it a few jolts. It shimmers, but doesn’t take. Marianne said the patient and his donor were both relatively young, and I’m not truly worried, but I cannot leave until I see this through. Small tremors pass through the piece of muscle I’m watching at the bottom of this well of light. But I want it to thrash like a piranha gulping fresh blood.
An hour and a half after the old heart stopped, the new one begins. I can breathe again.
Sarah Bronson is a scientific editor and food columnist living in Houston and tweeting from @UseWordsBetter.