Dreaming in the ER

I wake up to the night of Halloween.

Out of habit, I scramble the right side of the bed, grip my phone, and check the time.

5:30 A.M.

Outside is accompanied by darkness that’s hollow, that’s only crowded by the florescent streetlights.

It’s not a time I’m usually awake, but I don’t need to search long to understand my sleeplessness. A pain deep inside my chest throbs against the beat of my heart. I can feel a gush of liquid pooling in the center, each wave engendering a wince of sharp pain that amplifies into terror throughout my entire body.

The realization that I might be having a heart attack wakes me up. Not completely though. My neocortex, the part of the brain that governs reasoning and decisions, is still booting up, so my conscious self is an unregulated teenage version of emotional Sonny. Fear amplifies into horror. Horror sets irrational panic. I’m gonna die.

I open the door connecting my bedroom to the living room, where I see my housemate lying on the couch. Didn’t know he had such a fucked up bed time. Well, thank the heavens for it.

I call 911 because that’s the only thing I can think of. They pick up, a drowsy voice behind the receiver. I can’t properly verbalize my words for some reason, and it’s hard not to slur my speech. Yes, my dateee of birth is Octoberrrr 7th.. They ask me a couple questions about where I live, how I’m feeling, and etc. I can’t remember what I said 10 seconds ago.

911 hangs up. Time to put on a mask and a large jacket. I’m scared of moving too much because it might worsen the tightness in my chest and redirect the liquid in it to somewhere it shouldn’t be. I don my go-to winter jacket and sure enough, you can see blinding flashing lights intruding through the windows.

We walk down to the street, where I’m greeted by 3 firefighters shivering in the 20 degree cold. It’s fucking cold but I can’t even feel it because I’m so encapsulated by fear. And for some reason, it’s a fire truck not an ambulance. They walk me to it, and I sit on the back.

It’s fucking freezing. One of the firefighters complains.

My whole body is trembling, but the throbbing pain in my chest dissipates into dull aches that are less frequent. Even though I sit next to the three men, it’s hard to hear them because my mind is just focused on my body.

Soon enough, the ambulance arrives. I leap into the vehicle which requires me hopping through two large steps. A fireman guides me into the mobile bed, and I’m strapped in.

He makes me take off my t-shirt. There’s no heating inside the ambulance, and the clatters between the freezing winter breeze and my bare chest is piercing. But what hits harder is the reality that I’m in an ambulance, and my mind starts relaying stories about the insane medical bills. So and so got billed $1200 for getting EMS’ed on alcohol with insurance.

Not a price I can afford. So I begin panicking when the ambulance rolls its engines. A young firefighter, I’ve decided to call Jared, undergoes the procedures and puts on the electrodes. Protruding above the handlebars is a machine that prints out the sinusoidal readings. Jared detaches the paper and murmurs there’s a depression.

In the meantime, the imaginary auction for my ambulance bill dials up and up in my mind. $800. $1000. $1200. The bright lights, my palpitating chest, and all the events since I’ve woken up. It’s all too surreal and defies every sense of comfort. $2300.

I ask Jared, who’s sitting next to my bed side, “Do you know how much this whole thing is going to cost?“

He turns his face from the readings.

“I can’t tell you, man.”

We have a dialogue about how expensive this whole thing could turn out to be, and it ends with Jared informing me:

“If you think it’s going to be too high, we can always stop the car. It’s up to you and you have the right to not be treated…”

We stop the car and turn the ambulance back towards my home. It’s as soon as this change of direction occurs that I reconsider my decision.

“Am I making a mistake Jared?”

“I can’t tell you. But it’s definitely not normal to wake up with chest pain. It’s not normal. If you end up losing your life for a thousand dollars, I can’t.. can’t tell you if that’s a good call. Your EKG reading might have some problems, but you know your body best.”

Fuck. It wasn’t until he said those lines that I came to terms with the gravity of the situation. I was potentially making a really stupid decision. One that I might not get a second chance to fix.

“Turn the ambulance back.” Its destination—Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island.

5:45 A.M.

Now, I’m finally at the emergency room of the hospital, sitting on a bed that’s propped up by the head, so I’m in this position that’s halfway between sitting up and lying flat. It’s uncomfortable and hurts my back, but that’s the least of my concerns.

There’s a sort of freshness about the early mornings that permit an acceptance of new things. It’s the best time for bad things to happen because you have the rest of the day to deal with it. I’m not fully conscious about what’s happening to me, and that’s probably a good thing. My mind is more settled and no longer dialing ambulance bills in my head or thinking I’m going to die.

It’s not my first encounter with the idea of my mortality or the most dramatic one, but each one is unsettling. It’s unsettling enough to make you consider doing sort of a life review, a quick compilation of your regrets and dreams, family and relationships. It strips away what’s fake and your hidden lies, because only you can judge yourself honestly, and you might not have too many more opportunities to give yourself that dignity of being genuine.

So while I uncomfortably sit on that bed for 3 hours, I look back on myself. A test comes by, a worker would ask how I was feeling, but that’s not foremost in my mind.

Instead, I think about my dreams. They changed throughout the years; some I forgot and others I came up with along the way.

I remember how I wanted to represent South Korea in the World Cup. I would study the game and watch videos of the greats, the Ronaldos and the Zidanes, and try to replicate their angled cuts on the dirt field of my elementary school. There couldn’t be too many complaints about flying soccer balls breaking windows in our apartment.

After winning the World Cup, I journey back a few years and walk through the COEX aquarium, thinking about how one day I could own an aquarium myself. It would have a lot of penguins that did circus tricks but treated them fairly. People would have to wear jackets to brave the cold inside because they were the visitors and the penguins were the owners of the place.

These were dreams of my young naivete. Dreams when I did not know of such things like SATs or puberty. Aspirations of a young boy that got crushed by the test of time. Ones I forgot because I got distracted by the practicalities of life and all the other shiny things along the way.

And today, it’s harder to dream. Literally and metaphorically. I only started dreaming in my sleep again one year ago, and it’s sometimes really hard to remember them.

It’s what we call responsibility. You can’t ignore the financial consequences of what you aspire or how your desires will be perceived by others who don’t understand you. You have a family, and you’ll have to take care of one and start one. I might somewhat be the master of my soul but never the only stakeholder of my actions.

But I can’t forget my dreams. It’s ever easier to give up on them, but they’re what composes my happiness. They’re not just fickle or base desires. Instead they’re precious because they give me hope for what’s to come. They vindicate me from the binding notion that I am a person who lives without purpose and blindly pursues pleasure. And I need to work towards them before it’s too late.

The clock adjacent to a complicated Phyllis monitor above my bed starts ticking. The ticking is a stark reminder of the passing of time. The end could have been today. It could have been a heart attack.

With the dawn light peeking through the window comes a realization of gratitude. My encounter with what could have been fatal becomes a newfound clarity of direction. What’s unimportant strips away to give way to what’s new and what matters.

Those are, thoughts that others might think are silly or even impossible. I’ll chase them, forget them, or maybe even give up on them. But I’ll follow my dreams until they are no more, because if I don’t, it won’t be me that renders them no more one day, that final day that could’ve been today.

I grab my t-shirt and jacket from the stand next to me. I get dressed. I walk out of my bed towards outside, where the rising sun glistens the road ahead.