After checking in at the hospital’s volunteer office, Bertozzi places a heart-adorned ID lanyard around her neck and takes the stairs—“because I am a heart patient,” she says—to the third-floor ICU. On her way, she’ll often say a short prayer for the patients, some of whom she’s never met.
She scans a computer to find the heart patients—they’re identified by a little heart icon in the “status” column—and then starts popping into rooms. She always begins by asking the patient if they’re up for a visitor, and can only recall one instance when the answer was “no.” Next she identifies herself as a volunteer, because “I don’t want them to think I’m going to poke them.”
Some patients are intubated or too sedated to talk. Sometimes she’ll simply sit with them to give their loved one a break to grab a cup of coffee. Once, with his wife lying in the hospital bed next to him, a husband broke down and admitted that he’d treated her poorly. Another time, a man she hopes was loopy on medication offered details about his sex life. But talk mostly centers on families, careers and the common experience of open-heart surgery.
“We’ve had patients that are high-powered attorneys, we’ve had clergy, we’ve had patients that have been homeless,” Bertozzi says. “It doesn’t matter. They’ll tell me their story and I’ll tell them mine, and we’re on level ground.”
Her trips to the hospital, she tells people, are the highlight of her week. “The patients have given me the opportunity to share a pretty scary time in my life with them, and that can be therapeutic for me,” she says. “But the visit is not about me, it’s about the patient.”
Over the years she has kept in touch with some of the people she visited (primarily through Facebook), and attended funerals for three of them. But mostly she’s an in-the-moment friend during what could be the most trying time in a person’s life.
“It’s a little bit of cheerleading,” she says. “I think it gives people hope to know that not everybody who goes through heart surgery ends up with limitations on their life. You can get back to where you were.”
On a sunny June evening, Bertozzi is back where she was five years ago. Sitting outside of Balducci’s, she sips a bottle of KeVita mango coconut sparkling probiotic. Caffeine is now a no-no. She’s always been a diet-conscious person, but these days, perhaps counterintuitively, she allows herself a little more wiggle room.
“If my kids want to have a burger, we’re going to go have a burger and I’m going to eat it with them,” says Bertozzi, now an assistant manager at Truebody, a fitness club in Bethesda. She still teaches yoga, although she can’t do all the poses she once could. “I think I beat myself up more before. I had more guilt if I had some chocolate or drank too much. Maybe it’s an age thing, too, but now I just think we’ve got to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.”
It took her four years to set foot back in Balducci’s. (“It was actually good for our budget,” she quips.) She knows that was irrational, especially considering that it was the store’s employees who rushed to her aid. But if there’s one thing Bertozzi understands, it’s the power of fear.
On the same May night that she visits the 76-year-old jet-setter (she did indeed return after he’d ordered dinner), there are two other stops to make, neither of which is equally upbeat.
In one room, a 57-year-old man lies in bed, breathing with the assistance of a ventilator. After her introduction, Bertozzi gently rests her left hand on his right leg, which is covered by a white blanket.
“Last time I was here you had been outside. You were pretty tired,” she says. “You look good. Your eyes look good. You’re not watching politics, are you? Waiting for sports to come on?”
It’s a one-way conversation, but she infuses it with easy laughs, questions that need no answer, and reassurances that can only come from a person who was once in the same position.
“I just can’t tell you how powerful it is to have a visitor like Karin Bertozzi come into the room and say, ‘Listen, this was me in October of 2014. I sat in your bed right here. I had emergency open-heart surgery, I didn’t think I was going to survive. I survived and I’m doing just fine,’ ” says Corcoran, her surgeon at Suburban.
Bertozzi’s final stop is the room of a 59-year-old man who is recovering from an aortic aneurysm and dissection. “I had what you had,” she tells him and his mother, who’s sitting beside the bed. “It’s hard to be a patient patient, but you’ll get there—it just takes time. I know, I was here a long time, too. Are you comfortable?”
The man, who cannot speak, offers a barely perceptible nod.
“Mine happened when I was 46,” Bertozzi says. “It was a surprise also. Day by day, right?”
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.