Tuesday 11 August 2015

Why Tessa Has my Heart by Julia Heaberlin

Copyright Jill Johnson
Julia Heaberlin is an award-winning journalist who has worked for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Detroit News and The Dallas Morning News. She has edited numerous real-life thriller stories, including a series on the perplexing and tragic murders of girls buried in the Mexican desert and another on domestic violence. She lives with her husband and son in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, where she is a freelance writer and is at work on her fourth book.

I was twenty-eight years old the day a stranger saved my life.

It sounds dramatic, but to me, a novelist, it is only in the retelling.

I was born with an electrically nutty heart that goes back in our family to the Civil War. My great-grandmother was told she would die at a very young age (and lived until she was 70). Without pacemakers, our hearts are slow, sometimes beating in the 20s at night.  They carry the risk of going into atrial fibrillation. Sometimes when my heart “flips out,” it is clocked at 180 beats a minute. It’s like a popcorn popper in my chest. Because there are only a few families in the world with the same congenital condition, we are a bit of a curiosity. My grandfather and great-uncle were studied at Duke and are diagrammed in a medical journal.

A guy named Igor (really) at Harvard once asked my extended family to give blood samples to try to isolate the gene.

For a long time, I was always the youngest person in the cardiology waiting room. So people have always wanted to know “what it’s like” when they learn I have a heart condition. They look concerned.

Ask my husband,” I sometimes say. While we were dating, he’s the one who led me out of a church service after I turned to him in the pew, about to faint, and said, “I can’t see. Everything’s gone black.” He’s the one who still married me anyway and then didn’t complain when I went into atrial fibrillation on our wedding day, messing up our honeymoon. He’s the one who stood by at a restaurant in Detroit two years later, while a nurse who happened to be at the next table pumped on my chest.

My eyes were open. He didn’t tell me that until years later.

I was flat on the floor of the restaurant when I started breathing again. There were no bright lights. No otherworldly experiences. I was there, and then I wasn’t. When I came to, it felt like a truck was sitting on my chest. I learned later that wasn’t because of my heart. It was because of the pressure necessary for effective CPR.

I don’t remember the face of the woman who breathed into me. My husband, a journalist, has said the best reporting he ever did was getting her name and address that night while waiting for the ambulance. She lives in northern Michigan. She was an out-of-towner, a neo-natal nurse, in Detroit for the theater that night. I was supposed to be in a car with my husband on a ride to appreciate the turning of the autumn leaves.  We changed our minds.

Her name is Nan. Every Thanksgiving for more than twenty years, I have sent her a card. My son, born four years later, exists because of her.

Like most people with chronic conditions, I don’t talk about it much. There are little things, of course. I don’t like watching when a show like Grey’s Anatomy has its defibrillator paddles in overdrive. I have to turn my face away or change the channel. I’ve been shocked out of atrial fibrillation more than twenty times, maybe thirty. My husband once told me, while I was in a high-pressure journalism job, that I couldn’t treat the ER like a drive-through McDonald’s.

I don’t talk about my heart much because I know how lucky I am. That night, I rode in an ambulance to one of Detroit’s biggest hospitals, nicknamed the “Knife and Gun Club.” I was rolled next to a man handcuffed to a gurney. Later I was moved near a young boy who was having a convulsion while his parents stood there in panic. I saw a child, bald, with cancer. Or maybe that was another time.

Too many times.

Things have settled down now.  At the hospital in Detroit, I was treated by a good Jewish doctor named Michael Lehmann. I don’t care if that’s a stereotype. He was kind and brilliant and stuck a pacemaker in me. He knew how scared I was. I had passed out, not because of my heart condition, but because another doctor with a fancy French name and a lot of credentials had overdosed me on a drug. Dr. Lehmann is the one who later saw me through my pregnancy. He told me, “I’m here to help you live the life you want.”

Don’t get me wrong. I complain about a lot of things. About the frenetic world of publishing, about the pickup truck that cut me off, about how they are putting fewer chips in potato chip bags.

But my heart?  My heart has made me better. Maybe that is why I gave Tessa, the heroine in
Black Eyed Susans, the same crazy heart. It was like giving her a part of me. It was assuring her she could survive.

The only difference is that she can really, really run. Fast.

black eyed susans by Julia Heaberlin is out on 13th August 2015 (£12.99, Michael Joseph)

Black Eyed Susans
17-year-old Tessa, dubbed a 'Black-Eyed Susan' by the media, became famous for being the only victim to survive the vicious attack of a serial killer...  Her testimony helped to put a dangerous criminal behind bars - or so she thought. Now, decades later the black-eyed susans (yellow flowers on the cover) planted outside Tessa’s bedroom window seem to be a message from a killer who should be safely in prison. Haunted by fragmented memories of the night she was attacked and terrified for her own teenage daughter’s safety, can Tessa uncover the truth about the killer before it’s too late?

You can find more information about Julia Heaberlin and her books on her website.  You can also find her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @Juliathrillers

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