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The Black Sand Beach

My brain could only form one word as if on an enormous billboard and that word was: emergency. I was going to die. I had to get out of the water.

I was 27 years old and surfing on the coast of El Salvador when my heart stopped. I had just finished my Master’s program a few months before, and was in the country doing volunteer work. My little brother came to visit for two weeks and we decided to head to La Libertad, on the ocean. That morning I was up early, taking in the buttery light on the Pacific foam and the black sand beach. I strapped the longboard to my ankle, tied my hair back, and began to paddle out. That was when trouble found me.

The waves at La Libertad are strong. And El Zonte, where we were staying, is not a swimming beach. The outward tide sucks the dark sand violently from under your feet, and as you try to wade out deep enough to start swimming, the breakers hurl volcanic rocks the size of grapefruits at your legs. All of the veteran surfers in the area had shins that were covered in large, white scars.

I’d only been on my board a few minutes when suddenly it was like someone was choking me. I dragged at the air in a panic and I felt my lungs expand, but something was very wrong. A terrible pain crackled outward from my chest and my vision darkened. I fell from the board and into the churning, cold water. A wave pushed me violently towards the shore, but the longboard - still tethered to me by the Velcro ankle strap – was sucked oceanward and yanked me back out again. My brain could only form one word as if on an enormous billboard and that word was: emergency. I was going to die. I had to get out of the water.

The next wave pushed me close enough to shore that I was thrown down onto sand. Still submerged, I managed to free my ankle as the surf thundered over me, spraying me with gravel. Another push and I was back on the beach. My heart was going so fast I can’t even call it pounding. It was a drumroll, a speeding car with the breaks cut, an out-of-control machine about to breach. I looked to where another surfer was walking towards me thirty yards away. I didn’t know a heart could beat so fast and still keep going. But the answer of course is that it can’t, and as I stood up to motion for help the world went softly dark while I was still on my feet. El Zonte means “the horizon”, and that is what I stared at as my vision extinguished, that long blinding strip of white. There was the beach, the waves, the buttery light glossing everything, and then nothing. Black.

When I came to, someone had performed CPR. My brother – summoned in from further out on the water – was slapping me in the face. Everywhere hurt, every cell. It had been better in the darkness, less painful. But I knew I had to stay – that was how I thought of it.

“Keep me here, please keep me here,” I said. I didn’t mean El Zonte. I meant – living, here, in the world, in my life. There were people around me, people I recognized from the restaurant the night before, and a colleague from the village, and people I didn’t know. It seemed that everyone had a hand on me. Girls were crying. I later learned that when my heart stopped and oxygen failed to reach my brain I had had a series of seizures and was out for twenty minutes.

Someone brought a surfboard, a makeshift stretcher, and I was moved onto it and carried. There was no ambulance to call, so I was rushed to the hospital in San Salvador in someone’s station wagon. My brother and I usually express affection only through teasing or ridiculous voices, but during the whole ordeal he held my hand. They carried me through the hospital doors and everyone was staring. Who was this half-dead gringa in a red and blue string bikini, soaking wet and covered in dark sand? I looked like I’d come out of a ditch.

After a few days of tests, of fighting in Spanish with the nurses who wanted to give me mystery pills at all hours of the night, I got my diagnosis. And although I would see many doctors with conflicting theories over the next few years, that first diagnosis would prove correct. I have an electrical abnormality of the heart that no normal person has ever heard of. I looked at the charts, the EKG readouts, and I could see it; my heartbeat limping along the page with gaps in the rhythm all over the place, little pauses like a jump rope fallen slack.

I wish I could say it was a galvanizing moment, when I embraced my own fragility with love and respect. But it took me years to strike a balance between caution and challenge, between prudence and still living my life. All the plans I’d set for myself were washed away, gone in an instant. And it took me a long time to find my way again. I’ll never be wholly out of danger. But my heart, like the rest of me, does the best it can.

Summer Brennan is a freelance writer and artist. She lives in New York City.


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