Heat Stroke

by Karen Kleiman

I’m a Minnesota girl so I can tell you about wind chill, but what the heck is a heat index? Me, survive twenty days over 90 degrees? I don’t think so. Here I am, sliding down the slippery slope on the wrong side of 50 while the temperature is soaring past 95. I’ll never make it to 95. Heat stroke will get me. Last week in the searing midday sun I stopped for gas and my ’85 Taurus died with the nozzle stuck down his gullet. A mechanic said “The heat is hard on these old ones.” It cost me $2200 to replace the transmission. That was my birthday present to myself, and it was worth it because the car has air conditioning. My house doesn’t. I remember lecturing my husband Jim about excess energy consumption in the U.S. and depletion of the ozone layer. I felt that home air conditioning in Minnesota was just plain wrong. It’s true that these days I worry more about hot flashes than global warming. Jim is two years older than I am, but he took up biking, which apparently reverses the aging process. His only health concern is a minor sports injury , a scabby knee like any nine-year old gets in the summer. I’m not very athletic. My only sports injury was a stress fracture of my two front teeth that I got while eating peanuts at a ballgame. No pain, no gain. Jim wears skin-tight red lycra biking shorts. I wear sensible shoes. Last week when I picked up the mail there were catalogs for both of us. He got a biking catalog with sleek young women in sports bras on the cover. I read the caption. “These bras fit like a second skin and they feel as good as they look.” The other catalog, addressed to me, had a wheelchair and a walker on the cover. Ever since I turned 50, I get these geriatric catalogs. Let’s see—wheelchairs versus sports bras. It seemed like a no-brainer. I ordered a sports bra express delivery. After all, at my age who knows how much time I have left.

The next day was my birthday. The heat index was already 95 when my alarm rang. I hadn’t slept well and my eyeballs felt like two salted hard-boiled eggs. The sheet stuck to my itchy body, and when I got up my swollen feet stuck to the floor. Normally I have a routine that gets me to work on time with three cups of caffeine pulsing toward my brain, the dog fed, and a load of wash in the dryer. This morning I just wandered around, dazed by the heat. I had never noticed that my house smelled so bad. Stinking heat, I thought. Normally my dog Cody would be all over me for his breakfast but he wasn’t moving very fast either, so I just went downstairs and wandered around in the stuffy kitchen. The only sound was Cody’s heavy panting. Let’s see, 87 degrees inside and 87 degrees outside. I guess I’ll leave the windows closed. The newspaper stuck to my fingers and I didn’t even want to think about boiling water for coffee. Jim had set his alarm for 4:00 AM. He wanted to get in 50 miles on his bike before it was too hot, so Cody and I were alone. Neither of us had much to say. Suddenly I realized that I was already late, so I filled Cody’s water bowl and went out to the car. It started, but when I turned the air conditioner to “Max Cool” nothing happened. The steering wheel was too hot to touch and I was already stuck to the seat. I reached for the power window switch. “Damn!” I remembered the windows hadn’t gone down in six years but I had decided not to put any more money into the car since it was so old and besides, it had air conditioning anyway. My overheated brain began sparking dangerously, like a downed power line. Could I drive to work with the door open? Now I was sweating from fear as well as the heat. I could go to jail for leaving my child in this car, if I wasn’t too old to have a child. I could die of heat stroke on my birthday. The elderly are particularly susceptible. I had to get into the air conditioning at work. I roared out of the driveway, taking out my driver’s side mirror on the retaining wall as I turned onto the molten asphalt. Crows were standing in the middle of the street panting. I steered narrowly around them and sped to the clinic. My usual parking space was already occupied, so I pulled into another. The old security guard waved his arms at me. “You can’t park here,” he said, shaking his head and wiping his brow. “Park over there,” he continued, pointing toward the bank building.

“Okay,” I said, wearily getting back in my car, my white coat stuck to my back. I moved the car next to the bank, but the bank had its own security guard and he was walking toward me. “Clinic staff can’t park here.”

“I’m not clinic staff,” I said, fingering the stethoscope hung around the collar of my wrinkled white coat. “I’m a bank customer.” I walked toward the clinic, pushed the automatic door opener, and waited for the cool air to envelop me, but it didn’t.

“They’re turning down the air conditioning as a cost-cutting measure,” a nurse told me, seeing my red face. “They think we’re like lobsters. You know, if the heat increases gradually, lobsters don’t even notice. Check this out.” I saw a note on the chalkboard near the front desk.

“Please do not turn down the thermostats. It will cause the building to heat up.”

“How dumb do they think we are?” she continued.

“Well, we’ve both worked here more than 20 years,” I replied. I had a pounding headache so I went into the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. It was brick red. My hair, damp with sweat, was as frizzy as a brillo pad and almost as gray.

My first patient, a young woman with ear pain, was naked under a hospital gown. “Why did you strip?” I asked. “I just needed to look at your ears.”

“Well, it’s hot in here. You don’t mind do you? Say, Doc, you don’t look so good. Do you have air conditioning at home? You really should get some. This heat is hard on older people.” I tried to remember the last time one of my patients had asked me if I was old enough to be a doctor. It had been a while.

When I got back home, there was a package on the front step. My sports bra. I took it upstairs and examined it. The bra was silky black lycra without any fasteners. It looked small, but it would stretch. I undressed and slipped it over my head. Wow! It was tight but comfortable, like a second skin. I checked myself out in the mirror. Buff, very buff. Of course, I had pulled the shades against the heat, so there wasn’t much light, and my image was pretty blurry since I won’t wear glasses, but I was ready to ride. Jim thought I shouldn’t go out in the heat. “It’s okay,” I said, “I’m wearing my sports bra.” I hopped on my bike and took off, gulping oxygen-rich breaths. My calves burned with the buildup of lactic acid and I was covered with sweat, but I felt great. Endorphins were coursing through my veins. At the bottom of the driveway, I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach. Jim was right. It was too hot to ride. I picked up my side view mirror and walked the bike back up the driveway.

Upstairs, my bedroom was like a sauna. Time to slip out of my sports bra and into the shower. I lifted my arms to pull it over my head, but it was stuck to my sweat-soaked body like a second skin. My fevered brain saw no alternative. I grabbed a big pair of scissors from the top of my bureau, forced a blade under one strap, and cut. I snipped the other strap and frantically wriggled the bra over my head. “I can’t stand this heat for one more hour!” I screamed to no one in particular.

“Come and get a drink,” Jim said from the kitchen. “Just cool down.”

As if. I slipped on a shirt and went slowly downstairs. There was a big cardboard box in the living room, and Jim told me to open my birthday present. Listlessly, I tore at the tape as big drops of sweat spattered on the cardboard. There it was in gleaming white plastic, the perfect present for an aging hippie who really cares about global warming, a 5000 BTU window air conditioner. Now is the time to think globally but act locally, I thought. “Let’s put this thing in the kitchen window and plug it in.” I set its thermostat to 65. It might be a hot summer, but I wouldn’t die of heat stroke today.

Copyright 2003 by Karen Kleiman. All rights reserved.