Growing up, I spent a lot of time in pediatric hospitals. I had open-heart surgery at nine days old and heart failure at nine years old. My heart had a murmur I heard on the ultra-sound every year, and when I listened to my sister’s heart with my pink stethoscope, her normal heartbeat sounded weird. When I played with my dolls, they wore little hospital gowns, and I pretended they were having an EKG or getting an IV. The hospital was a huge part of my life.
But going in for surgery never got easy. Knowing what it was like to wake up from anesthesia just made it harder to let the doctors put me under again. After I got into my hospital gown and got tucked into the blankets on the rolling bed, my Mom would hold my hand. I got so scared I would shake.
I was four when I realized something important. Something that changed my life. My little four-year-old self was the designated spider killer of the family, because I wasn’t afraid of eight-legged creepy crawlies. And I could go down the really tall slide at the playground, after some serious deep breaths. Not to mention I could eat gummy worms, the most terrifying treat ever. And, of course, I was always going to the hospital. I realized I could do scary things.
I figured other people had realized this about me as well. So I told my Mom, “It’s okay. You don’t have to call me Elizabeth anymore. You can call me Brave Girl.”
She did, and she helped me to be brave. I held onto that name I had given myself, even after I got older and let people call me Elizabeth again. If I was going to make it through the medicine and machines again, I had to be brave. There was no other choice.
I’m 23 years old now, and my heart is doing well. But every time I go into the doctor’s office for a yearly check-up, I remember how it felt to be small and scared. I remember how it felt to need to be brave.