504 Hours

By Elise Spenner, age 15, Burlingame High School, Burlingame, Calif.

Credit...Holly Wales

It felt like there was no air in the room. Mom sat on the mint green chair in the corner. The white exam paper crinkled under me as I gripped my knees to my chest and rocked back and forth. My tears blurred the cheery posters on human anatomy, balanced eating and mask etiquette into a mosh pit of swirling words and colors. The doctor’s words were garbled, blocked out by a rushing storm of shame.

“Hospital … patient care … check if they have beds.”

“Disordered eating … bradycardia … not enough blood to the heart …”

I didn’t need to listen to her. I already knew everything. I am a straight-A student. I have a solid grasp on cause and effect. Two plus two is four; not eating and exercising too much is an eating disorder. I’ve watched enough “Grey’s Anatomy” to know when doctors have bad news. I could tell by the way she walked into the room: the weary smile that screamed pity and heartache and the look that said, “I came into this profession to save lives, but that means I have to ruin yours.” I knew before that, when the nurse’s brow furrowed at the 42 on the heart rate monitor, and her icy fingers pressed my wrist to recalculate. I knew when I left that morning for my ritualistic five-mile run, leaving the remains of a breakfast pecked at and shuffled around on the plate. Of course I knew.

For a moment, as I listened and cried and the world swirled around me, I was relieved. Relieved that I could let go. That I wouldn’t have to think about what I ate or how fast I ran because my hands were being forcibly removed from the steering wheel.

But the world wouldn’t stay on hold until I was ready to start living again.

While I sat shellshocked, Mom canceled next week’s vacation to the bungalow rental by the beach. Dad sent a terse email to my soccer coach explaining why I would miss our first training camp in a year. For the next three weeks, I would participate in my summer courses from the four walls of a hospital room, with my computer angled to block out the nurse that would routinely flush my IV, the tangled mess of green and yellow wires that would tie me to a 24-hour heart rate monitor, and the makeshift sofa that one of my parents would sacrifice their back to sleep on each night. And two months later, my dad would open the mail to find a bill for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Enough to account for the 504 hours I would spend in a hospital room, the 126 meals and snacks I would eat over those 504 hours, and the nurses who would wait on me for every single one of those 504 hours.

As I rocked compulsively on the glaring, white exam paper, relief quickly gave way to guilt. Gnawing guilt that in my undying pursuit for some ideal, I had destroyed my parents, my relationships and my life. I thought the numbers on the scale were some test to be passed or game to be won, until winning left me in a hospital bed for the summer. My choices were real. And the consequences? They were even more real.

First, after I finished sobbing, I wanted to scream, “Why me?” Then I wanted to pray to a god I didn’t believe in to turn back the clock and rewrite my story. But finally, with my face still buried in my knees, all I could do was whisper “I’m sorry” over and over and over again.