6 Life Support Machine
(Dr Matthew Nicholas examines Jason Sidney
for signs of miraculous intervention by Jeff
Jason Sidney became my patient when he fell
in front of my car at the traffic lights outside
the Bikram yoga studio where he had been treating
his anxiety for the last few months. I pronounced him
dead at the scene, after attempting resuscitation,
slamming the heels of my palms on his wet chest
(blond hair and clothing still drenched in sweat)
breaking his breastbone as best I could to get at his heart.
I lost him in front of a crowd of yoga-goers and latenight
shoppers, on the yellow-lit pavement outside an expensive
supermarket. The sombre mood was ruined by a phonecall;
the answerer apologised for interrupting (as if
she were in a theatre) yet her ringtone became a form of life
support—provoked what we are now calling a miracle.
Jason Sidney came back to life. His myocardium regained
strength. The octopus trap of his bulging left ventricular apex
(I only knew this after the ECG taken later at the hospital)
shrank as the song seemed to abate the rush of
catecholamine in his system. His eyes opened
and he said Jeff Mangum. I mean Neutral Milk Hotel.
These names were new to me but I was used to patients'
cryptic speech. No, I don't understand the aetiology of
his illness or recovery. My guess is that a microvascular
vasospasm caused by the physical stress of his recent
exercise combined with emotional trauma to quite literally break
Jason Sidney's heart. The then twenty-seven-year-old journalist
had suffered from depression and anxiety since his younger
brother's suicide the previous year. He dealt with the family
tragedy alone, preferring to work than grieve. Stoicism was
not sustainable, he told me, so he took up yoga. Two
hours in 105 degrees Fahrenheit, feet burning at the heat
vent, head light, yellow bile rising, he found himself
distracted. While his body was trained, the gun in his mind,
the mouth in his mind, the brother in his mind, the gun
in the mouth of the brother in his mind, was blown away
with deep breathing. It worked, he told me. He was free
to sleep for eight hours without nightmares before
the effect began to wear off. Twice or three times
a week in the studio that smelt like a sauna would not do.
He had to return daily—inquired about becoming a teacher.
Whenever his body was not stewing and stretching
anxiety would reappear. We agreed he must have overdone it.
The gripping pain kicked in as he walked down the stairs, held
the glass door for a pretty girl, then collapsed on the sidewalk.
Weary from a twelve-hour shift in General Med, but recalling
the oath I'd taken, I parked my Astra and pushed through
the crowd of yoga enthusiasts, the endorphin bliss rudely
shocked. I am a doctor (something I don't much like to say).
This brings us back to the music. If the phone hadn't been deep
in the girl's handbag, its volume increasing with each ring, if
she'd answered instantly, Jason Sidney would have died.
Neutral Milk Hotel was his brother's favourite band.
The ringtone song had seeped through the Sidney house
for weeks before the suicide. The music affected his adrenaline.
Takotsubo, the octopus trap, receded. Jason breathed. There was
below the breastbone I'd broken. He survived. He is still alive.
This is the central poem (for me) in Amy Brown's disturbing and
enlivening book – The Odour Of Sanctity. Because I had never
heard of Jeff Mangum and Neutral Milk Hotel I wondered if
perhaps she was 'making it all up.' I wondered if she was using
the lives of saints and the making of saints and the work of saints
(puzzling and intriguing manifestations of the human imagination)
to showcase a modern equivalent that could make sense of it all,
for me, at least. Just one of her readers. Not raised in the faith, but
cognisant of the phenomenon. But no, I googled, and there it all is.
I was interested to read that Jeff Mangum played a gig at the Kings
Arms Hotel in Auckland, New Zealand, and, as Amy is from New
Zealand, I wondered if perhaps she had gone along. I wondered if
that was the night the idea for this book manifested. It is a very trippy
book, it makes one wonder all sorts of things.