Be still my beating heart
In early November, just about a month ago, I woke up tired. I’m old so this is not really out of the ordinary.
I still got out of bed, did my business and then took the dog outside to do his. Pro tip: always go yourself before you have to stand around waiting for someone else to unload.
Before heading to the kitchen for my usual bagel, fruit and coffee, I went downstairs to check on my son and make sure he was up in time to make it into the office for work. I’m retired. He’s not.
But getting back up the stairs was so exhausting that I told my wife I would lay back down for awhile.
Now I was tired, in bed again and feeling sick.
Thinking that eating something would make me feel better, I forced myself up and staggered toward the breakfast bar.
Then fell down before I could reach it.
But I didn’t pass out or, thankfully, bash my head on the kitchen counter.
What the fuck was happening to me? I felt dizzy and weak, all wispy and aflutter. My breathing was labored with an unpleasant pressure in my chest. My fingers and toes were going numb.
Unable to stand on my own, my wife helped me into a chair. And told me I looked pale. I told her to get my son. And then call 911.
I won’t deny being fearful. This was some crazy, scary shit because, despite being 58 years old and overweight, I was remarkably healthy. Nothing really bad had ever happened to me. Until now.
But I thought if this was a heart attack, it’s nothing like what happens on TV. Or how my father described it to me. Other than not being able to get a full breath, I wasn’t actually in pain.
The paramedics arrived within just a few minutes. Surprisingly fast, really. And laid me flat on the floor to take my vitals, blood pressure and a quick electrocardiogram, also known as an ECG or EKG.
That ECG told them I was (good news) not having a heart attack. But it also wasn’t normal. Not even close.
A resting heart rate is supposed to be between 60 and 100 beat per minute. Mine was north of 180. I was essentially running a marathon while laying down.
At least sometimes it was that high. But, really, my heart rate was just bouncing up and down, out of control.
That meant a ride in the stretcher limo and straight to the hospital.
Maybe it’s fate or only fortune, but I live just two and a half miles away from one of the top ten cardiac care facilities in the United States. And as soon as I got there, they knew exactly what was wrong.
I was having atrial fibrillation.
The human heart has four chambers. The top two are the atria. The bottom two are the ventricles. Fibrillation is an arrhythmia or irregular and uncoordinated contraction of the cardiac muscle.
When fibrillation occurs in the atria, it reduces blood flow efficiency. When it occurs in the ventricles, it causes sudden cardiac death. So you want to avoid that flavor of it.
The good news is that while atrial fibrillation is very unpleasant, it won’t kill you. Not directly anyway.
But if the arrhythmia persists, then your uncoordinated, inefficient atria can become blood clot manufacturing facilities. And that could precipitate a stroke. Which can, yes, very quickly make you very dead.
So I was given blood thinners to prevent a stroke and other medication to slow my heart rate.
Unfortunately, the drugs didn’t convert my heart rate back into normal sinus rhythm. But my cardiologist told me it’s no big deal because another technique can do that 99% of the time.
It’s called electrical cardioversion.
The plan was to fix the short circuit in my heart by resetting it with a strong jolt of electricity. So strong, in fact, that I would need to be briefly put under to prevent trauma. Apparently it hurts. A lot.
By this time I’d had so many needles jabbed into me and so much hair peeled away by multiple ECG sensors, that strapping me to a work bench and rebooting me like a fucking Windows PC didn’t seem all that strange or unpleasant.
And it wasn’t. I don’t remember a thing.
What’s important is that it worked. The first time. And I felt much, much better right away.
After the procedure I asked my cardiologist what caused the atrial fibrillation. He told me that while they still needed to do more tests, I didn’t have any of the obvious risk factors.
“Sometimes shit happens,” he said.
Which endeared him to me immediately as a fellow professional.
The bad news is that I was back in the hospital a few days later. And again a few days after that. Not with atrial fibrillation, they said. But I was still tired and short of breath.
My son called it acute hypochondria and told me I was suffering from “old man’s disease.” Which really amused my cardiologist. Apparently, both of them are comedians.
Maybe after a lifetime of general good health, I was just having panic attacks over one scary cardiac episode.
Or maybe it was just muscle soreness from all that labored breathing. It could even be the damn flu shot they gave me during that first hospital visit.
We don’t know.
In the meantime, they taped a portable heart monitor to my chest for two weeks, costing me more of my manly fur. And treated me to multiple echocardiograms, ultrasounds of my heart, before and after a treadmill stress test. Not to mention multiple chest X-rays.
After all that, I show absolutely no signs of heart disease, valve problems, blocked arteries or excess pericardial fluid. My cardiologist said that I have a perfectly normal, healthy heart. And I can live my life without any special medication or diet.
So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.
But I still have a 50% chance of another atrial fibrillation episode during the next year. Why? Because those are the odds for anyone who’s ever had it once.
To prevent further stupid trips to the emergency room, I bought an AliveCor Mobile ECG for my iPhone. It can very quickly detect atrial fibrillation as well as many other cardiac problems. It’s worth it just for the peace of mind.
The other thing that makes me feel good about this whole ordeal is the response from family and friends.
My wife and son, of course, were by my side the entire time. Another reason I love them. And my sister and in-laws were checking on me constantly. That’s what our family does.
But the response from all of you out there was amazing. Thank you so much, my friends, for your concern and support. Seriously.
And to everyone who told me to “calm the fuck down,” yes, I got the joke. And I really deserved that advice this time.