A Journey through the Heart by Drew Rankins

The return of the robins is one of the first signs of an upcoming spring. A winter that always seems to last longer than the past years yields to the unpredictability of March, April, and May. Soon, the flowers and tree buds follow. The oppressive yet welcome heat of the dog days of summer were always my favorite.

The death of the canary in a coal mine is one of the first signs of trouble. If the miners under the Earth didn’t get out soon, they would follow the canary into death’s embrace. I always wondered what was worse: slowly losing access to life-saving oxygen deep underground, or slowly rotting from the inside from black lung disease.

It was supposed to be an easy assignment; just draw the human heart. We had every cross-section and diagram imaginable in our textbooks for reference. The lazier, yet more clever students just printed out images from the internet and traced them. I wasn’t about to cheat myself out of learning about the heart though. The nonstop messages coming into our class group chat gave me every opportunity to take the easy way out, but I was taking a principled stance against tracing. Besides, it’s just drawing, we don’t need to re-design the damn thing. How hard could it possibly be? I could probably even finish this before the Bulls game tips off.

Another message in the Facebook group chat came across:

Megan: hey guys just in case you cant print pdfs heres a screenshot of the dorsal view.

Followed by:

Noah: who tryna smoke? i traced that shit at lunch and my bro just got a g.

The people who were blowing up the Facebook chat with printable diagrams didn’t bother to study for the exams either. They were the people who passed around answer keys from their older siblings who had taken the class before, so this was nothing new. They’ll get their comeuppance when it comes time for the AP exam.

One of the most important organs in our body deserved my respect and full attention. I could feel my own broken heart pumping away, delivering plasma, red and white blood cells, platelets, and oxygen all throughout my body. The network of veins showed a healthy blue color on my skinny wrists. It made the task of applying IVs very easy for nurses, but it also made me look even skinnier. There was still a tiny round scar from the last IV dotting my wrist. Usually I can handle the needles without any problems, but this one ached for months after it was taken out. It’s a little different when it has to stay in your arm for a week.

Where do I even start with the heart? I’ve been looking at it for hours now and it’s slowly becoming a maze of interconnecting valves and chambers without a clear starting point. I just need to look at it with fresh eyes. I’ll finish watching this Bulls game then get right to it. In honor of Derrick Rose’s third edition of “the return”, I bought a pair of his signature shoes. Maybe I should get a late-night game in. That would definitely clear my mind. I’ll see what Jake’s up to. I wonder why this urge to play basketball never hits during the day. Maybe it’s because the porch lights simulate the bright lights of the United Center during a late spring playoff push. Considering my heart, this would likely remain a fantasy. But maybe if I kept practicing, my skill would outweigh…

No, I need to do this. If I have time after the assignment, I can play some ball. Senioritis is really a bitch. I wish it was May already, I’m already basically in college with my AP classes. Maybe the tracers had the right idea.

Okay, I’ll just print out a picture for reference. The textbook’s pictures were way too detailed and it’s just confusing at this point. I can start with the aorta, it’s one of the biggest and most important parts of the whole heart. It’s also an area I’m very familiar with. It’s brought up every six months when I go to my cardiologist, I should be a borderline expert at this point. Start with the arch, coming from the left ventricle, and dispersing down the torso. There’s the valve, tricuspid in almost everyone else. Maybe if they have to go in there again, there will be a technology to make it tricuspid. I hope I have some time to rebound before they go back in though.

Maybe it’s not senioritis that’s distracting me. Am I still dependent on the oxycodone? I’m still adjusting to a life that’s not centered around doses of the drug. My days were spent keeping track of the four-hour periods while on the drug. The dull pounding in both my head and chest were reminders of normal life, and I wanted desperately to escape it. If I think about it hard enough, the feeling returns. Like gears grinding together without oil, every joint and muscle in my body prodded at my mind for relief. Suddenly, every thought somehow connected to the drug. I can’t operate without it. The pain is nothing compared to this mental crutch. I don’t even feel the scar anymore, yet I need relief. My muscles felt like they were ready to quit on me forever if they didn’t receive their medicine. But this wasn’t medicine, this was poison.

I turn up the speakers on my PC to hopefully drown out the voices in my body. The background study jazz wasn’t enough, I needed something new to grab ahold of. Kendrick Lamar was just popping onto my radar; I’ve been learning new things about his sound every day. To Pimp a Butterfly was becoming the anthem to my semester. The extended metaphor of a caterpillar metamorphizing into a butterfly felt emblematic of my journey into college. I was ready to take a leap of faith into the unknown, ready to learn things about the world and myself but most of all, I was ready to break free from my cocoon. The album could not have come out at a better time in my life.

What else does Kendrick have? I didn’t have much time to think, I needed my reality to be music right now. Shuffling his discography on Spotify brought me to “Chapter Six”. Losing myself in the soothing verse and silky-smooth delivery, the refrain “Pray that we make it to 21, 1, 1, 1…” echoed in my mind.

A crow’s caw is the chilling anthem of late fall; the last warning call of retreat for life before the long winter takes hold. Dying leaves and creeping frost often accompany the harsh sound. The crow is often a resident of the graveyards.

A sparrow’s song has a unique way to ease you out of a heavy sleep and into a sunny morning. It’s a beautiful reminder that life exists outside our human world, and we are all related through the journey of life. When added to the other birds, a chorus of wonderful noise reminds me that summer will return, no matter how long the winter.

Drew Rankins is a 22-year-old environmental scientist and writer from the Chicago suburbs. As a recent graduate from Drake University, he plans to enter the environmental science field to work on habitat restoration and local ecology. He has worked on restoring native prairie habitats in Iowa and wetland ecosystems in the Chicago area. His writing tends to focus on fictional stories but also features personal non-fiction exploring his life experiences.