My Heart Almost Broke... Me

4 years ago

Until October 22, 2013, my focus had narrowed to include less and less and less until it was solely on my heart. Anxiety and panic have plagued me my whole life. I remember hating to go to bed as a child because I knew my nightly fate was to lie there, hearing and feeling my heart pounding.

People who don't have heart problems think I exaggerate when I say this, but I am serious. I could hear my heartbeats through my skull, via bone conduction I guess, and through the mattress and pillow. Sometimes I could see my heartbeat through my shirt, a little ripple fluttering under the fabric. Definitely I could always feel it. Sometimes I felt a muffled thrum, and other times I felt a smacking inside my chest.  All too often, I felt as if a tiny malicious ninja lurked in my ribcage whirling nunchuks at my ribs. Lying in bed was always the worst time to experience any of this because of the lack of competing noise and activity. I just had to lie there and freak out.

Image: Dennis Skley via Flickr

Eventually I either decided on my own or someone told me, I can't remember which, that I was anxious. This then expanded to the idea that my horrible anxiety caused my heart to race. I grew up "anxious." It was an invisible label that I made a part of my identity by eventually announcing it and attempting gruesome anxiety humor in the way people do to preempt pity. "Anxiety girl, she delivers! Ha ha!"

Anxiety ate more and more out of possibilities for things I never did. I swallowed more and more pills prescribed to treat my eventual panic disorder. "You have the worst panic attacks I've ever seen," said more than one medical and mental health professional. I probably did. My heart sped up, and I could hear blood whooshing through my ears and feel a steadily cinching band around my ribs. I sweated. I felt nauseated. I hyperventilated. Sometimes I threw up.

I lived with anxiety as a constant backdrop, my heartbeats a constant accompaniment that I monitored exhaustively. Overt fear blossomed over the years, a smoldering fire that licked through my veins. When my heart raced, I felt that fire, a burning pain that literally made me sweat as if I were scorched from the inside. And I felt like a burned-out shell, spent and crispy and old before my time, afraid.

And then, one night at work, I started feeling breathless and dizzy. I was not anxious above my usual baseline and was actually taking a break to sit back and read a book. Fortuitously, I was working as an ER nurse and was in triage that night, so I grabbed a pulse oximeter off the desk and put it on my finger. At first my pulse was 130, which was not out of the ordinary for me, but this time it shot up while I watched. The last number I saw before I passed out was 180.

Thus began my year of heartbreak. I had developed an arrhythmia called supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT, which is more common in children and affects few people the way it did me. I became an actual cardiac patient. I randomly collapsed. I visited the ER regularly as a patient because I needed IV drugs to get my heart rate down. I had to take steadily increasing doses of drugs that made me feel sluggish and depressed and caused weight gain. These "spells" became worse and more frequent. I was shocked. I got Adenosine. I got IV beta-blockers.

I became afraid to move because any exertion made my heart take off, which then made my chest hurt and made me throw up and sweat and often pass out. It started to feel like a bad dream. You see, if the heart beats as fast as mine and as often as mine did, its chambers do not have time to fill up with blood. So each contraction pushes an insufficient amount of blood into the vasculature. So nothing in my body was getting enough oxygen, including the heart itself, and I had chest pain (which, in addition to hurting, is downright alarming). I got short of breath and exhausted just moving through daily life. I was in and out of the hospital, increasingly more in than out, and inevitably I was scheduled for a cardiac ablation on October 22.

A cardiac ablation is where they run sheaths into your heart through vessels accessed by holes in each groin and one in the neck and then irritate the heart to induce the offending arrhythmia, map it, and kill it off so it can't do its thing anymore. It's about as much fun as it sounds. But the reason I was so sick and not responding like other people do to SVT is that I had two different arrhythmias, both rare, one that had probably made my heart race my whole life and the other that showed up suddenly at this late stage in my life and kicked the whole game into high gear.

And when I woke up from surgery, it was all gone. Just like that. I literally woke up with color in my skin for the first time in a long time.

My heart beats at a normal rate. It pumps an appropriate amount of blood, which makes me feel strong and healthy. My cheeks are pink. I don't have to feel and hear and fear my heart all the time. My heart works, so the constant anxiety is gone, and suddenly I have "more." I have "yes." Before, I had less and less in my life, to the point I lay around saying no to all offers because I was afraid of what might happen.

Now, day by day, I have more and more as I say "yes" again and again. The expanses the soul can see become limitless once it learns how to say "yes, I would like more." And I am grateful, every day, for October 22, 2013.

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