In Cuffs

In Cuffs

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress


In Cuffs

I pulled into the local grocery store parking lot. Did I want to go in? No! It had only been three and a half weeks since my sister had died unexpectedly. On the morning of her sixty-third birthday she was literally dancing with delight over her flowers, cards and balloons. That evening she had dinner with friends. Then about 10 p.m., as she slept, her heart simply stopped. And my sister, nine years my senior, was gone.

I was stunned. Grief and sadness filled me. I couldn’t sleep. During the day I began to feel pressure in my chest and experience shortness of breath. On top of those physical alarms I wasn’t sure from one moment to the next if I would be buoyed up with some lovely memory of my sister, or capsized into an ocean of tears. Through it all, my chest felt tight and my heart pounded. I needed help. I called the nurse practitioner.

At the nurse practitioner’s I explained the situation between bouts of tears. I asked her to take my blood pressure. I said, “I know it’s high.” I had never had high blood pressure before, but I was correct. She kindly assured me it was understandable with all of the stress in my life. She said I needed to have three consecutive blood pressure readings, however, to make a correct diagnosis. I was given a sleep aid, anti-anxiety medication, and instructions to go to the closest Schnucks, a grocery store chain, to use their free blood pressure machine to chart the next two readings.

The day after, I went to Schnucks. As I walked in, I surveyed the store to see if there was anyone I knew. I did not want to break down in the store. I made my way to the back as inconspicuously as possible to where the blood pressure machine sat in wait. As I approached, my heart beat faster. My reading was going to be high. I cuffed myself and hit the button. I took deep breaths and silently told the machine I was okay. But the machine said it was high. So I decided a nice little stroll through the store would be good; perhaps a little shopping would keep my mind off things. I looked at greeting cards, movies; I went by the bakery and the summer clearance aisle. But pressure reading number two remained steady.

This pattern was repeated the next day. This time I knew the first reading would be the worst. Mindful of cameras above watching my every move, I went back and forth from the blood pressure machine to wheeling the cart around the store so I wouldn’t look like an idiot fascinated with the piece of machinery over by the pharmacy. But reading number three from the evil cuff said I was still high, so I put the call in to the nurse.

After three days on the blood pressure medicine I felt tightness in my chest once again. That’s when I found myself in the Schnucks parking lot one more time. I did deep breathing. I got out of the car and walked through the automatic doors and back to my nemesis. By the time I got to the blood pressure machine I was so worked up that when I saw my numbers (Stage 1 hypertension), I decided to ask the pharmacist if I was going to have a heart attack on the spot. If so, this was okay. Next to a doctor’s office or firehouse, a pharmacy was probably the best place to be. It would be even better if I announced it ahead of time. I approached the pharmacist and explained my situation. She must have seen my panic. She assured me that I was fine, and said “Call your doctor if you have questions.” As I turned away, a young woman who had been a captive audience to my drama smiled at me and said, “You’re not going to die.” With that I slunk away, embarrassed and mad at myself for getting so worked up.

So once again I shopped. I looked at more greeting cards and put six of them in my cart. I walked down the summer clearance aisle, which I now had memorized. I grabbed some milk and some rather large bags of Cracker Jacks. And as covertly as possible I crept back to the machine to read my fate. The cuff gave me the news: the numbers had dropped but not enough.

The nurse practitioner got me in the next day. Again I cried. I told her how the blood pressure machine had pulled at me, like a moth to the flame. I had become obsessed. I thought I would pass out or die right there at Schnucks. I understood it was feeding on itself, the blood pressure devil back by the pharmacy, and my sense of panic. But I simply could not help myself.

Then came the time for a reading, and she wrapped the loathed cuff around my arm. I took a deep breath. I heard the push-push sound as yet another evil cuff inflated and the whoosh-whoosh as it deflated. Then the Velcro ripped apart and she announced with a smile, “Your blood pressure is good!”

I laughed with relief.

She said, “You know, there is a lady who has high blood pressure who comes to this office. For ten years she’s carried a cuff in her purse and she has one at home…. I think she has at least three. Once she was in a restaurant, started feeling bad and took her pressure right there. It’s taken us all this time, but I think we’ve finally weaned her off the cuff. My advice to you, Mary, is to stay away from the blood pressure machine. Don’t go. You’re fine. You just have some stressful issues going on, and you have medications to help you through temporarily. What you’re going through is difficult and life-changing. But you’re going to be okay.”

I felt the tension leave my body. The pressure left my chest. I said, “Jeanne, thank you! I already feel so much better just having talked to you. I won’t go back to that blood pressure machine. I promise. But Jeanne... they’re sure gonna miss me at Schnucks.”

~ Mary Hughes ~

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