November 14, 2018
by Harry Markowicz
It's 5 A.M. A brief knock on the door and it opens. Simultaneously, the bright lights go on in the room. A small man wearing a white jacket walks in, carrying what looks like a box with a handle similar to what a hot dog vendor uses at a baseball game. It contains plastic tubes organized by the color of their corks. “A small pinch … .” That’s how phlebotomists warn you as they stick a needle in one of your veins. I used to be squeamish, but by now it’s become routine. Nevertheless, I look away as the needle is inserted in my arm and my blood begins to fill the small tubes.
Now it’s 6 a.m. Another knock at the door; it opens, and the lights go on again. The nurse comes in to check my vital signs. When she leaves, she turns off the lights and partially closes the door so I can have enough light to walk to the restroom, which is in the room.
I’ve been awake for several hours, waiting. The electrophysiology lab, which looks like an operating room, opens at 7:30 a.m., and I’m the first patient scheduled to be taken there for a cardiac ablation today. I have been dreading this procedure, but treatment with medication is no longer working for me.
The electrophysiologist, who most likely spent his youth developing his hand-eye coordination by playing video games, will invade my heart and spend several hours manipulating five catheters inserted through two veins, one in each leg. If successful (and there is no guarantee) I will be able to live free of my scourge—atrial fibrillation.
I’m waiting with some trepidation to be transported to the lab. From time to time, I hear a wheelchair being pushed in the hallway, but so far they haven’t been for me. Then I hear a wheelchair stop outside my door and a man’s voice says, “I’m here to transport Markowicz to the EPL.” They have come for me, and my life is no longer under my control.
The stress resulting from all the waiting conjures up a fading memory from another place, far away, and another time, long ago, when I was five years old and waiting for them to come get me and my family.
During the summer of 1942 in Nazi-occupied Belgium, the Germans started rounding up Jewish families and deporting them to eastern Europe. At the time, their exact destination was unknown. If reports filtered back regarding their fate, no sane person could have believed them. In any case, no one shared those rumors with me.
My family lived on rue Charles LeGroux, a quiet residential street in the heart of Brussels, not far from the Parc du Cinquantenaire. Our apartment was on the first floor of a three-story house. Below us, the basement apartment was vacant. Another Jewish couple lived in the apartment above us with their children, who ranged in age from teenagers to young adults.
On this particular day, we were socializing with our upstairs neighbors in their apartment. When I told my brother that I needed to use the WC, he walked me down the stairs to the toilet, located under the stairway on our floor. He waited in the hallway, then suddenly opened the door to the WC, grabbed me by the arm and whispered that someone was trying to open the front door. We ran up the stairs as quietly as we could to warn the others. My mother and the other couple ran down the stairs and went out the back door. I don’t know where they hid, but I assume they climbed over the wall separating our backyard from the one next door.
My father led all the children, including my sister, my brother, and me, as well as the kids from the other family, up the stairs to the attic. I didn’t know why he chose that dead-end route for us; he may have thought there was not enough time for everyone to get downstairs, past the front door, and out the back way, before the front door would be opened by whoever was trying to come in.
In the attic, the opening above the stairway was enclosed by three walls, a ceiling, and a door facing the stairway. It was as if a small room had been built above the stairway without reaching the roof, leaving an open space between it and the roof.
My father pointed to a short ladder propped up against one of the walls and quietly told us to climb up and lie down on top of the little ceiling above the stairway. He instructed us to be completely silent. He handed up the ladder and told us to set it down next to us. He stood next to the doorway and listened for any sound coming from downstairs.
I remember my sister, who was already a teenager, lying near me, glancing up at me with fear in her eyes. Her first contact with the Nazis had occurred years earlier in Berlin, where we had lived previously, and she knew better than I how serious our situation might be. It felt like being in a state of suspension; holding our breath, waiting, expecting that at any moment German soldiers would come up the stairs and discover us all.
In fact, nothing happened. After a long wait my father said, “Everything is all right, you can come down now.” It felt as if I could breathe normally again. We climbed down and rejoined the adults, who had come back from wherever they had hidden. Later, we learned that our landlord was the person who had been trying to unlock the front door. He was trying out various keys to find the one that fit the front door lock. It would have been a completely innocuous event under normal circumstances.
I never found out why my father didn’t hide with the children. After all, we never spoke about what we went through during the Shoah. Recently, it occurred to me that if it had been the Germans trying to enter the building, they would have found my father in the attic, acting as a decoy; we children might have been overlooked in our hiding place. He would have saved our lives at the price of his own. Sometimes distance and time provide hindsight.
I wake up in the recovery room. I’m told by a male nurse I remember seeing in the operating room that it all went well. He adds that the electrophysiologist is speaking with my wife, Arlene, and she will join me shortly. Now I must lie completely immobile for the next five hours to avoid any bleeding at the two sites where the catheters were inserted into my legs. It may be several months before we know whether the ablation was effective. According to the medical literature the procedure has a 70 percent chance of success.
Two years have now gone by without any life-threatening arrhythmia events. Once again luck appears to have tilted in my favor.
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