Heart’s Oratorio

It is Spring Break and instead of heading to warm beaches I’ve been indulging in a massive reading intensive, staying up into the wee hours of the morning IMG_0775finishing book after book as if they were bonbons. Some have been disappointing reads (like biting into a chocolate bonbon only to discover a nasty fake cherry filling): Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Travels With Herodotus, and Michelle Kennedy’s Without a Net). Others have been rewarding, such as Colum Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship and Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. But one book stands out as a keeper and worthy of future re-reads and study: Mary Oak’s Heart’s Oratorio: One Woman’s Journey through Love, Death, and Modern Medicine (Goldenston Press, 2013).

First, a disclaimer. I know Mary from my monthly writing group—the Shipping Group—that meets at my favorite bookstore, Elliott Bay Book Company. Mary is a quietly strong and centered woman. But that is not why I love her book. I love her book because it is beautifully written and tells a powerful and unique medical narrative. I love her book because it helped me to view the medical system from a different perspective.

Mary has died twice in the past decade. The first time she died was in 2007 in the Houston airport while running to catch a connecting flight to Paris. She collapsed in the airport terminal. Otherwise healthy but having asymptomatic ‘athlete’s heart,’ she experienced sudden cardiac death, then was brought back to life through the actions of emergency medical personnel and hospital treatment. Back home in Seattle, Mary underwent two cardiac surgeries at Northwest Hospital. During the second surgery, to implant a cardiac defibrillator, Mary’s heart stopped once again. But that is just the background medical drama of her story. The real story is Mary’s spiritual journey through it all. Mary comes from a long line of homeopath and Christian Science healers and had avoided most all things allopathic. But as she writes, “Nothing like sudden death to invite a different perspective.” Mary’s book is also a love story: her love and care for her children who may have inherited her cardiac condition, as well as her love of David who becomes her husband and cares for her through her illnesses.

Although I neither share Mary’s spiritual beliefs nor her long family history of spiritual healers, I was drawn into a deeper understanding of and respect for them through her story. I can envision using her book in the nursing education that I do. Many parts of Mary’s medical narrative occurred right here in Seattle in hospitals where my students are trained and may eventually work—so it is literally close to home. Mary describes walking past my own university office (in the world’s largest and ugliest university building/photo attached here) on her way to find her medical records:

“Then I walk city blocks’ worth of narrow hallways with low ceilings and polished tan vinyl floors. I pass countless numbered doors. Only one is open: to a room of legless and armless dummies on the floor for a CPR training. No one is there. As I walk past various laboratories and offices, I wonder how much debt I will incur with this latest round of medical consultations. Will I live to pay it off?”