54: Waiting in Line

54: Waiting in Line

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Waiting in Line

A hug is the shortest distance between friends.

~Author Unknown

I tried not to cringe when Maggie told me the first thing she does every morning is take ten different pills. Then she has a cup of tea — coffee contains too much caffeine for her heart to handle. She then heats up some breakfast, but she takes careful note not to stand in front of the microwave. Exposing her chest to radiation waves could make her pass out.

Maggie and I were in a linguistics class during my first semester at Syracuse. We sat and giggled together at our white-bearded professor, who mumbled to himself in a lecture hall of 500-plus students and told his assistant to scram. Maggie seemed amicable enough, and I’d been having trouble making friends, so I finally summoned the courage to ask her to grab some lunch one day after class. She seemed thrilled beyond belief.

As we walked around the quad, Maggie revealed to me that she didn’t have many friends at Syracuse. Real friends, that is — ones who would support her, regardless of her condition. I looked her in the eye. Condition? Did she mean being a transfer student from Oklahoma? Maggie sighed. She asked for my confidentiality, and we made an awkward pinky-swear on the sidewalk.

She told me about that fateful day during her high school chemistry class when she first blacked out. The muscles in her heart had hardened, preventing the chambers from properly filling with blood. Over the course of the year, she had sensed slight arrhythmic imperfections with her breathing.

It wasn’t until six months later that Maggie was diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy at the Mayo Clinic in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her heart was a normal size, but it could not expand or contract between heartbeats. We had just begun our fourth lap around the quad — well past lunchtime — when Maggie started tearing up. If I hugged her, would it seem like I just felt bad for her? I wanted to empathize, not sympathize, but I had no idea how.

“It was so traumatic for my family, especially for my dad,” Maggie told me. Her dad had been diagnosed with restrictive cardiomyopathy eight years ago, when he was forty-one, and has been living with a heart transplant for six years. But since the condition is much rarer in young adults and females, Maggie told me, her likelihood of receiving a heart transplant in the near future was grim. I could only think back to my own family traumas. They paled in comparison.

“My condition is progressive, so every day it gets worse,” Maggie said. She lifted her blouse and pointed to her heart, where an artificial pacemaker regulated her heart rate. “But everyone’s dying anyway, right?”

I winced as she spit out the stats like they were a list of lunch specials. The growth of the waiting list for a heart transplant out-paces the number of donors, she said, and each year fewer than one-third of the people who need organs get them. Doctors want you on your deathbed before you are eligible to move to the top of the list. Sporadically, she’d receive voicemail updates regarding her priority on the waiting list.

My mind was frantic. You can’t die, Maggie. You have too much to live for! Keep fighting! I had only shared two classes a week with this girl, but it was as though she could read my mind. “The hardest part is broaching the ‘I’m dying’ subject when meeting new people,” she said. She recalled telling some friends in high school, but they backed away and stopped calling. Her boyfriend of several years had just broken up with her because her condition had gotten too intense for him.

I asked her if she resented the doctors and nurses who had put her on that dreadful waiting list, who had prescribed the dozens of pills she’d be taking for the rest of her life. “We act like the only solution is transplants,” Maggie said. She told me about her dream — a career in preemptive health to make things better for others. “Modern technology allows so much, and I want to be a part of that.” She smiled as she wiped away the tears that had gathered in the corners of her eyes.

It was our seventh lap around the quad, and I couldn’t help noticing all my carefree colleagues playing Frisbee and basking in the sun (a phenomenon in snowy Syracuse). They had no idea about Maggie’s restrictions, or her struggle just to make it up a flight of stairs. For a moment, I hated all of them, so naïve about the harsh world out there. But Maggie stopped me. “Life isn’t about keeping score,” she said simply. “God doesn’t give us more than he knows we can handle.”

That afternoon on the quad, I learned from Maggie. Everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. I held out my arms and asked her if she needed a hug. Indeed, she did. And so did I.

~Megan Hess

More stories from our partners