Volume 2
An Online Literary Magazine
March 28, 2009


In the Basement


Larry Lustig



unday mornings in our house were usually uneventful. When Adrian picked up the phone at 8:47, that morning, I assumed it was a wrong number or an east coast relative who forgot about the time change.


It was neither.


On the other end of the phone, a 13-year-old girl tried to explain to my wife that our daughter, Selena, had had a seizure. She had stopped breathing.


Adrian threw off the comforter, jumped out of bed and ran to get dressed. A shot of adrenaline jolted me. I focused on my wife’s voice. Her face. In an instant, life became one of those photographs where the subject is sharp and everything else fuzzy.


Selena had spent Saturday night at a sleepover. Her friend lived about a mile away. We parked behind a fire truck and an ambulance. Through the open front door we could see the other girls, huddled in a corner of the living room, pointing downstairs. Walking down to the basement, I heard the sounds of heavy shoes on a hardwood floor, cracking voices on radios, closing doors. It felt like I’d walked in on someone else’s emergency.


Kim, the sleepover mom, came over to us. She wore a white terrycloth bathrobe, closed unevenly below her neck. Her slicked-back, light brown hair looked as if she’d just come out of the shower. It wasn’t water. It was sweat. She had been working on Selena before the EMTs arrived.


“When the girls called me, Selena had started turning blue,” she said, panting. “I don’t know how long I kept pushing on her chest.”


A firefighter walked out of the playroom. “Are you the parents?”


“Is she in there?” Adrian asked. “What happened? Can we see her?”


Our daughter lay on the other side of the door, possibly dying, possibly already dead. I was afraid to go in.


I read the name on the fire lieutenant’s badge. Williams. He stood closely, looked in our eyes and spoke too calmly. He’d given this speech before.


“We’re doing everything we can,” he said, “but I must tell you, it’s not looking good. Would you like to talk with a chaplain?”


Adrian screamed in disbelief. “But we’re Jewish! Oh my God, Larry, what am I going to do? My baby.”


Hugging my wife seemed like the right thing to do but it felt wrong. Our daughter was dying and I could do nothing about it. I sat down on a dirty, chewed-up dog pillow, closed my eyes and pleaded to whatever or whoever was in charge of such moments. Please don’t let her die.


Selena is our youngest. A rare kid, both funny and a good listener, she’s the most naturally athletic of us, possibly the result of competing with two older brothers. Love of shopping downtown with Mom or reading in bed with Dad has offset that competitive toughness. I call her Bena. She’s a great kid.


Her brothers Jake and Daniel came down the stairs. Daniel was preparing to leave for college in New Zealand the following weekend. A family ill-prepared for its first major separation was about to be blown apart. I pulled both boys into to me.


“She’s stable,” I said. “She’s going to be all right.”


Time is not relative. When a firefighter asks if you want to talk to a chaplain, the past, the future, even something that would qualify as now, all disappear. I do not know how many minutes passed between when Lieutenant Williams told us our daughter had died and returned to tell us she had a heartbeat.


elena’s room in the cardiac I.C.U. looked like a late-night Safeway--big, quiet and dimly lit with a newly-waxed linoleum floor. I sat at the side of her wheeled bed, holding onto the railing as if touching it would wake her up. I pressed my lips to her cold forehead, one of the few areas not covered, connected, taped or tubed. A nurse caught me pulling up her blankets.


“Don’t worry,” she said. “We want her to be cold.”


She spoke with an accent. I asked her where she was from.


When she answered, “New Zealand,” I looked over at Adrian. Her face looked relieved, like a mother who had been told of her baby’s safety. A sleepover. A mom performing CPR. A Kiwi nurse. Adrian was convinced everything was linked. She knew all the people who came into contact with Selena had been brought together to save her. Looking at my daughter sleeping under a wall of machines and tubes, I wanted to share my wife’s cosmic optimism.


“Your daughter has had a cardiac event,” the cardiologist told us, spreading out an EKG on a round table. “Possibly caused by an abnormality in her heart’s electrical system, a condition called Long Q-T Syndrome (LQTS).”


Neither of us had ever heard of Long Q-T.


“The Q-T is the interval between heartbeats. In some people, the heart takes longer than average to re-set itself after each beat—rare, but not uncommon.”


“How did this happen?” Adrian asked.


“Most likely a genetic defect.”


I put my fist to my lips. Genetic defect. From me?


“In most of us,” he said, “the heart naturally corrects itself and we never notice anything wrong.”


“So if this hadn’t happened to her, we may never have known?” Adrian asked.


“Unless you knew what to look for.”


“Such as?” Questions calm Adrian. She needed to understand the situation, how our lives would change, how we would have to proceed.


“Family history. Long Q-T is passed on genetically. If one family member has it, others usually do as well. Unfortunately, most people don’t know they’ve even got it.”


Did I pass this on to our daughter?.


“We check to see if any family members died suddenly and inexplicably.”


I told the doctor that my maternal grandfather died suddenly while driving at 49.


“Did they know what happened?” he asked.


“The death certificate said cardiac arrest. I never learned any more about it.”


“It’s difficult to say regarding a genetic connection with your daughter, but I wouldn’t rule it out. There’s one other symptom,” he continued. “When the heart goes into a chaotic rhythm, trying to re-set itself, sometimes a fainting spell follows. Has your daughter ever fainted?”


Adrian and I looked at each other sharing a sense of guilty clarity.


“We think so,” I said. “A few months ago, Selena got up quickly at the end of class, felt dizzy and fell. Luckily, her backpack cushioned the fall. We chalked it up as an isolated event, like a low blood sugar thing.”


He tried to make us feel better by saying that unless we specifically knew what to look for, we couldn’t have recognized it. Still, we’d missed the signs--my grandfather’s premature death and Selena’s fainting.


Funny things can happen in a hospital waiting room. While Adrian and I sat at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and worried about what our lives would be like when Selena woke up, a steady stream of friends visited. They brought food, cards, flowers and prayers. Their simple, predictable, well wishes eased the fear and uncertainty. My wife and I lived in the moment, proceeding with a naive confidence that Selena would be fine. Worry and fear gave way to hope. She had to get better.


elena made it through the critical first 24 hours. Doctors used an experimental new hypothermia therapy to lower her body temperature to 90 degrees. Ideally, this would slow down the entire body’s metabolism, especially her brain, which had gone without oxygen for ten minutes.


Over the next two days, Selena made steady, remarkable progress, surprising even hospital staffers. By the fourth day, they transferred her to a private room. I could see her improvement when she kept trying to pull out the feeding tube. After they removed it, she ordered me to get her a Jamba Juice.


Before her “heart attack,” as she jokingly called it, Selena often seemed shy, insecure and unsure of herself. She was preoccupied with how others viewed her. She didn’t like being the focus of attention. More than anything, she wanted to fit in. A typical 13-year-old.


The week had transformed her. A new person sat up in the hospital bed and held court. The brush with death, support from the community, perhaps a sudden realization of her good fortune, had changed her. An insecure teenager who hated being the center of anything now reveled in it. She worked the room with a combination of confidence, maturity, humor and, most of all, candor. She spoke freely, as if the episode had removed the filter that stood between thought and speech. No subject was off limits.


Get well cards covered the walls of her room. She asked me to read (and re-read) them, and e-mails from her friends. She pointed to one card and asked me to take it down.


“I read you that one a few minutes ago.”


“You did? Read it again.”


“This one’s a poem.”


“A poem, that’s so cool. Who sent it?”




“Nick, he’s so hot.”


A week earlier, she never would have said anything like that to either one of us.


As I was sitting at the foot of her bed, I noticed a woman, then two, then five, appear in the hallway, all dressed in University of Washington purple and gold warm-up suits. June Dougherty, the coach of the Husky Women’s basketball team, walked in first, followed by four of her players. Before the cardiac event, Selena had played on a 7th grade select basketball team.


June introduced all the girls, saving Kayla for last. Kayla Burt, a star player, had to quit the team after suffering two seizures, also from a rare heart condition. She came closer to the side of the bed and removed her jacket. “I want to show you something.”


She casually pulled down the left side of her T-shirt and showed Selena her three-inch scar. If you looked closely, you could make out the bumpy outline of a pager below her left shoulder. It was her defibrillator—just like the one Selena would have installed. She moved closer and let Selena touch it. “See, no big deal. I hardly know it’s there anymore.”


he doctors advised Selena not to rejoin the basketball team. Even though the episode had occurred in her sleep, too much evidence of sudden cardiac arrhythmia among young athletes put them at risk. Selena was one of those at risk.


On the first Saturday after she came home, Selena’s team played a morning game in Edmonds, north of Seattle. We drove up to see it. As we stood outside the door to the school gym, I put my arm around her shoulders, kissed her head and asked her if she was ready.


“You going to cry again?”




“Big baby.”


Selena had heard her older brothers call me that a lot lately.


Tugging at the arm of her black North Face fleece jacket, Selena adjusted the blue cloth sling to prevent loosening the freshly-installed leads of her new defibrillator. Then she walked into the gym. The game was in progress. One of her teammates saw Selena and screamed. The rest of her team turned around. The other team did, too. Coach Lori signaled to the referee for a time out. All the team’s parents stood and applauded. Selena sat at the end of the bench, acting a lot cooler than her father.


And to think it used to bug me when she didn’t get enough playing time.



LARRY LUSTIG of Bellevue, Washington left a 30-year career in the radio business to pursue freelance writing. His work has appeared in Writer's Digest, among other places. He is currently working on a collection of personal essays.






Home | Search | About Us | Submissions | Mailing List | Links | The Writer's Workshop