Last fall, I sat on the patio of my childhood home in Arlington, Virginia, with my parents, enjoying the cooler temperature at dusk while we sipped gin and tonics. I was having a drink with my parents at home on a Tuesday night just like I did 10 years ago when I was 23 and struggling to figure out my next move after college.
I’m not the only 30-something who went home for quarantine. But I didn’t go because I wanted to ― I went because I had to.
Before COVID-19 took off, I was struggling with my own health crisis in Los Angeles. I was in advanced heart failure. I couldn’t walk short distances without having to take deep breaths that led to tightness in my chest so constricting that it felt like being strangled by an invisible corset. I would return home from one or two errands beyond fatigued, curling up in the fetal position until the tightness subsided, sometimes more than 30 minutes.
I had been through something similar three years prior. I had a hole between my aorta and right ventricle leaking blood that caused similar symptoms. But this was different. I had new symptoms and they were worse: tightness in my chest, loss of appetite ― I went from being excited about my next meal to eating because I knew I should for energy ― and extreme fatigue that eventually reached the point where I no longer had the strength to drive or leave my apartment.
2020 was miserable and it was barely February.
It turns out I had another hole in my aorta, but the same quick patch job that worked in 2017 did not work in 2020. Initially, I felt so much better that I accepted a last-minute invitation for the Magic Castle (a members-only magic club) just two days after the minimally invasive cardiac procedure to close the hole. But a week after a night of magic and medium-rare filet, I found myself unable to enjoy a steak dinner at a nice restaurant in my Koreatown neighborhood to celebrate my six-year anniversary of living in LA and living with my roommate.
My aorta was tearing again and the only way to fix it now was open-heart surgery.
I don’t have the kind of heart disease that is known as the No. 1 killer of men and women. I have congenital heart disease, the kind that is present at birth, the kind that can’t really be “fixed,” and so it continually threatens to upend my life with an arrhythmia or leaky valve when I least expect it.
My heart problems, much like a volcano, would occasionally go dormant, but they never really stopped being active. A life with complex congenital heart disease is ― how do I put this? ― a pain in the ass.
As the coronavirus was ramping up, I was consumed with my own respiratory struggles in my hospital room, ignorant to the growing pandemic outside. On the day of my surgery, March 18, UCLA Medical Center, my hospital, stopped allowing visitors.
My parents, who had flown from Virginia to Los Angeles specifically for my surgery, were stuck in a hotel room a mile away. For the nine days I spent in the cardiac intensive care unit recovering, we communicated with phone calls and FaceTime ― exactly how we communicated when we were 3,000 miles apart.
What’s the recovery like from open-heart surgery? It’s difficult enough that as a 33-year-old woman I needed to be taken care of by my 60- and 70-something parents. I needed help showering. I needed help getting dressed. I couldn’t push, pull, or lift more than 10 pounds for eight weeks, which meant that I couldn’t use my arms to help me get out of bed.
Instead, from a supine position I had to roll onto my side and have someone else lift me up into a sitting position. Fun, right? I couldn’t avoid it and, whether I liked it or not, I needed someone to take care of me after I left the hospital. And I didn’t have someone in LA who could do that.
So I moved out of my apartment with the help of my mother and my aunt, who thankfully resides in nearby Orange County. Barely two weeks post-op and unable to stand from a sitting position without assistance (I learned the hard way), it was a struggle to empty my home of three years, but it had to be done. I’m not sure how you spent your Easter Sunday, but I spent it decked out in a mask and gloves flying across the country in an airplane with distanced seating.
Back home in Virginia, it was nice to simply rest and not have anything else on the agenda. This was the first time in eight years of trying to be a screenwriter, first in New York and then in LA, that I wasn’t worried about what I was missing or how my career was being affected.
In Los Angeles, I had gone to invite-only screenings of movies, heard my favorite writers and directors speak at events, and attended parties at houses in the Hollywood Hills. But I had missed the births of my two nieces and nephew. I had missed multiple weddings, baby showers and baptisms. I had missed family dinners with my parents, brothers and neighbors all watching my nieces twirl around the backyard and my nephew delight them with his baby gibberish.
I’m no longer the fun aunt who lives in California and visits only once or twice a year. These days, my 6-year-old niece comes over several times a week and we work on her math and writing skills. My 1-year-old nephew smiles at me every time we meet instead of staring at me like I’m a stranger. I get to witness my 3-year-old niece (who is either destined for stardom or prison) hide Oreos under chairs in different rooms so she can sneak dessert when she doesn’t finish dinner. And I get to sit on the patio with my parents, enjoying the crisp fall air and changing leaves.
I miss Los Angeles. I wish I could be there with the many friends I’ve made over the past six years, especially during this turbulent time. But I’ve been more occupied than I expected.
Three months post-op, I found myself in a particularly high-stakes game of hide-and-seek in my parents’ spacious backyard. My nieces were counting, and since the 3-year-old tends to skip 17, 18, 19, and go straight to 20, time was running out. I looked around to see some good hiding spots behind bushes that were too far for me to reach without running (and it was still too early in my recovery to run). So I looked up.
In front of me stood an ornamental cherry tree that was the perfect height to climb. Reaching out and grabbing that first branch was an act of trusting myself, my strength, and my recovery.
By the time they counted, “20,” I was 12 feet off the ground and watching as they searched all around the yard with no success. It wasn’t until I started shaking the branches that they found me feeling suddenly strong, adventurous, and exactly where I was meant to be.
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