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By Frank Thomas Croisdale

It was a helluva way to make a new friend.

I spent the better part of Saturday a week ago feeling tightness in my chest right over my heart. When the tightness began to be accompanied by a tingling in my left arm I began to get worried. A quick check of the American Heart Association Web site confirmed what I'd already suspected. I was exhibiting two of the most common warning signs for a heart attack.

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I made a hard decision and called the wife to let her know that I was going to the emergency room at Mount St. Mary's Hospital. As you can imagine it went over like a ton of bricks.

I knew that, at 39, I was young for the risk of heart attack. I also knew that, as a lifelong non-smoker, my odds of having a coronary seizure were far less than what they'd be if I inhaled a pack or two of smokes each day. Plus, my family has no history of heart disease.

None of those things were very comforting as the tightness in my chest persisted as I walked into the emergency room.

In case you've never had the pleasure, it's quite a thing to witness the quick action taken by medical professionals when you scratch down on the admission form that you've come in because of chest pain.

Before I knew what had hit me, I had an I.V. in my hand, oxygen tubes in my nose and a snazzy blue gown over my navy blue suit. An EKG and a chest X-ray -- performed with a mobile unit wheeled right into the emergency room -- soon followed.

The ER doc on duty broke the news to me with an affable bedside manner.

"We'll be keeping you overnight, Mr. Croisdale. Until we know for sure what's causing you this pain, we'll err on the safe side."

Not exactly how I would have chosen to spend the last Saturday evening of the summer of 2004.

The wife arrived looking ashen and shaken. I reassured her as best I could, silently relieved the life insurance premiums were paid up to date.

I was wheeled up to a semi-private -- or semi-crowded, depending on your disposition -- room on the fifth floor. It was then that I met the unique Mr. Crowe (not his real name).

I soon found out that Mr. Crowe was a regular in the cardiac wing of St. Mary's. As I introduced myself, Crowe's bright eyes belied his dire condition. Mr. Crowe's arteries were hardened beyond repair and he'd come to a quiet resolve concerning his fate.

I soon found out that Crowe took great delight in giving the entire medical staff on the fifth floor a hard time in any and all fashions.

If they came to check his blood levels, he told them that he was tired of being stuck with needles. If a nurse brought him red Jell-O, he demanded orange. If they told him that his doctor would be up to see him in an hour, Crowe demanded that he be there in a half-hour.

For the most part, it was a good tactic. Many of the nurses seemed to enjoy his attentions, even when they were negative. The ones who didn't took delight in putting him off. One of my nurses enthusiastically replied to Crowe's request for her to look at what he'd blown into his hanky by telling him, "I'm not your nurse today so have a look at it yourself."

She spoke the words with a Cheshire Cat grin plastered across her face. Crowe seemed to respect her moxie.

As the night progressed, little time seemed to elapse between visits from one nurse or another. Some wanted to take my blood pressure or stick me with needles, while others sought out Crowe for the same treatment.

It was while fighting off a headache, brought on by the anti-clotting medication the nursing staff applied on my arm or leg every few hours in the form of a patch, that Crowe assessed my condition and told me that my heart was fine.

"I'm the one with the bad ticker," he said.

"Isn't there anything that they can do?" I queried.

"Oh, they want me to go in for an angioplasty, but what's the use? My arteries are too far gone. It would be pain for no gain."

I thought that Mr. Crowe might just be a fatalist, but I realized that he had made his decision judiciously when a doctor arrived later and spoke with him about the merits of hospice care.

Later, Crowe's family visited and I eavesdropped in the unavoidable way that one has to when stuck in the next bed in a small hospital room.

His daughter pleaded with him to reconsider the angioplasty. Crowe told her that she was beating a dead horse. He spoke in a singsong voice with a sentence-ending upward lilt that I knew well but couldn't quite seem to place.

Being the master manipulator that I was quickly learning him to be, Crowe adroitly flipped the conversation to the reasons why his daughter had blown off a medical exam earlier in the week.

Before she knew what had hit her, Ms. Crowe was defending her actions and no longer attacking her father's.

Once they'd left, Crowe sighed audibly and said to the wall as much as to me, "I wish they'd come to terms with it like I have."

The upward lilt again hooked me in and it was then that I remembered where I'd heard it before. My grandfather Gerald, now many years deceased, had spoken with the same airy tone and cadence. Something that Crowe had said earlier to one of his nurses now came back to me. He had used a fictitious word when pulling her leg about the size of the needle that she was planning on sticking him with. It was a word that young children commonly use by combining the synonyms "afraid" and "scared." It was a word that my grandfather had often used.

"Don't come at me with that big needle," Crowe had warned. "I'm ascared of that."

At one point a nurse came in and for the umpteenth time ran down a litany of questions concerning my medical history. As I answered no to query after query, Crowe decided he'd had enough.

"Send him home fer crying out loud, he's healthy."

The next morning a cardiologist came to see me and gave me the glad news that all of my tests and blood work had come back negative and that my heart was just fine. They'd be sending me home by early afternoon.

"What else could it have been?" I asked.

"Stress. See if you can get rid of yours," came the reply.

Sure thing, doc.

I called the wife and gave her the good news and thanked the fifth-floor nursing staff for their kind and professional care.

As I was changing back into my clothes and packing up my belongings, I felt bad for the guy in the bed next to mine. While my chest pains had been a false alarm, his were a five-alarm fire burning out of control. What would I say to him as I left? What words were appropriate for a newfound friend with a terminal outlook for tomorrow?

I walked over to his bed and stuck out my hand.

"Well, I've got my walking papers, Mr. Crowe," I said. "It was a pleasure to have met you. I'm just sorry it had to be under these circumstances."

"Take care of yourself and that heart of yours, Frank," came his reply. "Do me a favor, will ya?"

"Sure, anything."

"Let it beat once in a blue moon for me."

As I stepped into the hallway, my heart hurt in a way that didn't need a doctor to tell me it was real.

Frank Thomas Croisdale is a Contributing Editor at the Niagara Falls Reporter. You can write him at NFReporter@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Oct. 5 2004