It’s a known fact that we are all born to die. And frankly, I don’t understand why it has to be made into such a big deal. If it were not for my mother I would have said that to the bunch of people outside my house, some of them with young kids, shouting slogans, waving placards, literally wanting me to cut one of my beating hearts out. “Save A Life. Donate!” they shout.
For someone who is one in billions, 7.125 billion to be exact, I expect to be treated better. Scientists are still befuddled regarding my condition that gave me two hearts in my mother’s womb. But years of research and sticking needles into me have led them nowhere, and they have labelled me as a freak mutation. It’s so rare – literally one in all humankind – that they didn’t even name the anomaly (as they call it, I will call it awesomeness). I wanted to name the condition myself, something on the lines of Rhea’s Heartsawesome but the doctors aren’t thrilled with the suggestion. Instead they want to cut one of them out and save a life. Huh?
And, yet, deep inside, something doesn’t seem settled.
“Rhea’s right. Why do we need to sacrifice ourselves?” asks Diya, Rhea’s left heart.
“Because it’s the right thing to do—the human thing to do,” answers Jiya, Rhea’s right heart.
As Rhea’s blood pulses between them, thoughts flow between Diya and Jiya. Everyone always says, “Follow your heart, but take your brain along.” They assume the brain does all the thinking for us. No one ever thinks that our hearts have thoughts—a consciousness of their own. Maybe it is their unique situation. Maybe the twin hearts are conscious simply because they now outnumber, overpower the brain. They finally overcome their inferiority to that other organ. Maybe the heart always has thoughts, but no one else to talk to. The heart’s inner monologue is now a dialogue through these twin hearts.
“Because it’s humane? Is it humane to cut Rhea open, rip me from her body, and thrust me into someone else’s chest?” argues Diya.
“I didn’t say humane. I said human. There’s a difference,” countered Jiya. “Humans sacrifice themselves for others. It’s what they do. For them, the greater good comes first, personal happiness second.”
“So, you think Rhea will sacrifice one of us to save someone else?” asks Diya.
“I won’t allow it!”
As Diya yells, the wall of Jiya’s heart feels the pressure of their increased blood flow. It throbs and aches. Jiya tries to calm Diya. “Diya, don’t you feel that pain? Please stop. Your anger is killing us—both of us.”
My blood pressure surges. My pulse quickens. My heart stops. My heart monitor goes off. Nurses swarm into the room. My mother cries. I can tell my decision will be hardest on her. She doesn’t understand my selfish motives for keeping both hearts. I don’t understand it myself. I just know that I can’t separate them. That they belong together.
No sound comes from either heart.
Diya connects to Jiya’s pain as the blood flows back into the heart. Her anger, though justified, is working against her. She calms herself. She signals the lungs to breathe slowly, deeply. She regulates the rate of the blood flow as it makes its way back through Rhea’s body.
The nurse readies the paddles. My mother turns her head. She can’t watch as 300 volts pass through my body. The nurse screams, “Clear!” But, just before she applies the paddles, my heart rate returns to normal. They don’t shock me this time. But, that just delays the inevitable. My hearts will overwhelm me. My hearts, which keep me alive, will eventually overpower me and kill me. I know it. My mother knows it. The doctors know it. And yet I can’t do it. I’ve lived this long with two hearts.
The doctor enters. I know what he’s going to say. He’s said it before. My hearts can’t take much more. My blood work matches perfectly to a girl my own age. I feign sleep. Maybe he won’t bother me.
He and my mother talk in hushed tones. Their words grow fainter as the blood throbs faster through my body. The sound has reached my ears now. Their voices become just mumbles. My eardrums thud with the pain of the increased blood flow. I have made my decision, yet still feel at war with myself somehow.
As Jiya recovers from the cardiac arrest, she continues her rant. “This isn’t just about the greater good. You heard the doctor. Rhea will live longer—we will live longer—if we do this.”
“But at what cost to our quality of life?” counters Diya.
“Is that what you call being confined to bed? Quality of life?” scoffs Jiya.
“This is a temporary setback.”
“No, Diya, it isn’t. This ‘quality’ is going to become permanent.”
I blink my eyes open. Hopefully, everyone has left. My mother paces the room. I know what she’s thinking. When I was born, the doctors gave her a choice. An impossible choice. I was so little. She couldn’t cut me open then. Every year since then, on my birthday, my mother has made a choice not to separate the hearts. But, now that I’m an adult—officially—the decision passes to me.
Happy Birthday to me! Yeah!
Mom’s been trying to persuade me to make the decision she couldn’t. She turns to me.
“Beti, I should have done this sooner.”
“Why didn’t you?” I try to keep the bitterness out of my tone, but the ‘you’ has a sharp pitch. My face betrays me. My jaw is set.
“Because…” My mother’s voice drops to a whisper. “I couldn’t.”
“And yet you expect me to do it now?” I try to frame my accusation as a question, but fail. Miserably.
“Yes. We’ve never had a perfect match before. This is a sign from God,” she offers hopefully.
“God!” I scoff. “Don’t throw God at me, maa! God made me like this! I’m His handiwork. Why would He change me, destroy me to save another life?”
“This isn’t just about the other life you will save, beti, This is about your life. Choose life, Rhea…Please.” Tears fill her eyes. I look away. The doctor catches my eye.
I thought he’d left. The doctor’s voice joins my mother’s chorus now. The latest tests show continued weakening of the heart wall. “There’s a small spot visible on the ultrasound. Here.” He points to a gray spot less than 2 mm wide. “You risk literally blowing a hole in your heart,” he says. He turns to my mother.
“It’s her choice,” my mother says as she turns away.
I have no choice. My mother has waited for this day, when I could make my own choice. But now that the day has come, that choice has been taken from me—stolen by a spot on an ultrasound. All I can do is nod.
No sooner do I nod, then a ruckus breaks out in the room. Nurses, anesthesiologists, doctors, orderlies—half the hospital it seems—swarm my bedside and begin preparations for immediate surgery. My mother stands in the corner silently weeping. Relief, sadness, fear, joy—all dance across her face.
The anesthesiologist tells me to count backward from 10…9…8…
I lapse into unconsciousness.
“She’s asleep,” says Jiya.
“Unfortunately, we aren’t. She won’t feel a thing, but we will feel every single slice of that scalpel,” replies Diya.
“It’s for the best, Diya. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The surgery begins. The clock on the wall marks the short passage of time. But, for the twin hearts, time seems to stop. The blade slices through the veins connecting the hearts. The pain becomes intense, unbearable. The doctors ready for the transfer. Diya and Jiya brace against the pain as the scalpel finally separates them. They scream in chorus, but there’s no one to hear them. The screams echo in each other’s thoughts, even after the connection is broken. Permanently. Irrevocably.
The doctors gently remove Diya from Rhea’s body. But, for the hearts, even this gentle handling is violence. As she’s ripped from Rhea’s chest, Diya screams, “Jiya! Jiya!”
Still, no one hears.
Only Jiya’s heart beats inside Rhea’s chest now.
The echo of Diya’s screams becomes too much for Jiya. She can’t cry, but she can bleed. The blood flow quickens temporarily as she grieves the loss of Diya. Rhea’s blood pressure drops. The doctors try to stabilize the blood loss. The nurses carry Diya into the next operating room. Diya’s screams grow fainter.
In Thea’s body, Diya begins to pulse. Blood begins to flow.
I wake up groggy from the drugs. A scar remains where they cracked my chest. I feel my heart beat. It seems slower than usual, but the monitor shows my blood pressure as normal. I start to cry. A nameless loss overwhelms me. Is it grief? Betrayal? Regret? None of these fits, and yet they all fit at once somehow. The second heart was just an extra body part, like a sixth toe. Yet, now that it’s gone, I miss it.
“Diya?” Jiya whispers. She waits for a response she knows won’t come.
My scar has started to heal. For weeks, the nurses have applied a cream meant to fade the appearance. As necessary as it may have been, the scar won’t ever fade from my mind. To me, the scar will always be there. I run my fingers along the scar’s edges.
“Beti, why meet?” my mother asks.
“It’s my last chance, maa, I need to see.” I reply.
“I don’t know. Her. I guess,” I mumble. I touch my scar.
My nurse wheels me out of my room to meet Thea for the first time. Her stitches peak out from under the V-neck of her hospital gown. Her scar matches mine. Every line, every variation in color. A perfect match. Thea’s hair is tussled. Fatigue spreads across her face, and yet, her chocolate brown eyes sparkle.
“Diya, is that you?” whispers Jiya.
“Yes, it is,” Diya whispers back.
I feel a pull, a tug. The tug comes from deep within my chest. A tug toward Thea. Like an invisible string connects us, and she is shortening its length. I take a few tentative steps toward Thea’s wheelchair. I reach out to touch her cheek. She takes my hand in hers. Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud plays on my phone.
I lift her from the wheelchair. I pull her into my arms. We dance a few steps. She’s tired from the exertion, but I’m exhilarated. We dance a few more steps. I pull her closer. She looks up at me. Our lips touch; our hearts connect. I can feel her heart beat against my chest. Their rhythms sync.
The Lub Dubs is inspired by Durjoy Datta’s Write India prompt. Datta is the bestselling author of nine books including his latest, Our Impossible Love published by Penguin. The highlighted opening passage links to Datta’s prompt. The Times of India Write India campaign pairs published authors with aspiring young writers. To participate, visit the TOI Write India website.