“Knock, knock,” Karin Bertozzi says cheerfully as she breezes through the open door into Room 3105 in the intensive care unit.
“Are you up for a visitor? I’m a volunteer. My name’s Karin.”
Bertozzi has proffered that greeting countless times since she started dropping in on heart surgery patients at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda as a member of Mended Hearts, the largest cardiovascular peer-to-peer support network in the world. It’s the words that follow it—“I had heart surgery here a few years ago, so now I come around and talk to other patients”—that usually resonate so deeply.
Looking fit in slender black jeans and a casual blue shirt, sleeves rolled up to her elbows, Bertozzi, 51, seems too young and vibrant to have survived open-heart surgery. But five years ago, she too was in the ICU at Suburban fighting for her life.
The 76-year-old patient immediately warms to Bertozzi, who seems to have that effect on people. She asks about the specifics of his case: what procedure he had, the surgeon who performed it, the progress he’s made since the operation. They converse in the shared language of heart patients, discussing doctors, electrocardiograms, stents and stress tests. He tells her about the leg and disc problems that predated his bypass. He’s not so much complaining as he is sharing a checklist of maladies, injuries and general annoyances that he senses Bertozzi innately understands.
“Oh my gosh, you’ve had a rough few months,” she says. “Well, at least you’re smiling now.”
A grin as visible as the chest scar peeking out from his gown creeps onto his face. In true D.C.-area fashion, he begins to rattle off his resume. He worked for the Department of Labor and other government agencies, has traveled extensively around the world, once shook John F. Kennedy’s hand, and was photographed with President Jimmy Carter in the White House.
Bertozzi listens intently until the man says he has to place his dinner order.
“We can come back if you’d like,” she says.
“Come back,” he replies.
The last memory Bertozzi has of Oct. 16, 2014, is seeing lemons. Like most Thursdays, she had stopped into Balducci’s on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda to pick up sushi for lunch after teaching a yoga class. As she walked into the store, she felt dizzy, a sensation she chalked up to hunger. But in the produce aisle, she feared it was something more serious.
“I knew I was going to faint, so I got down to the floor because I didn’t want to crack my head open,” she says. “I told a guy that worked there that I definitely was going to need some help. And then I don’t remember anything for four days.”