If you were like me, up until December 2012, the closest I wanted to get to a depiction of my heart was the box of candy that is sold to celebrate Valentine’s Day. In other words, I didn’t think much about my heart, if at all. I was in good shape, or so I thought. I watched my diet carefully, exercised religiously, didn’t smoke, and was only a light drinker of alcohol. I made sure to schedule my annual physicals and my doctor never questioned my EKG results. I could climb up 10 flights of steps to my apartment without breaking a sweat or panting. As far as I knew, no one in my immediate or extended family had a history of heart problems. So how did I end up under observation in a cardiac unit of a hospital, and could there possibly be something wrong with this mysterious but powerful organ?
Until I was 55 years old I had never ridden in an ambulance, and this was not something that I desired to ever do. But on that December day, I rode in an ambulance twice. The first time was to transport me to the first hospital emergency room, and the second time was to transfer me to another hospital that had a dedicated cardiac unit. I guess when you black out twice in one day, they do not consider you to be superhuman, regardless of what you think. They want to keep an eye on you throughout the time you are in their care. In fact, they wouldn’t even let me get out of the bed and onto the stretcher on my own. I had to be lifted from one to the other.
I should have been feeling relieved that I was in a hospital that could take care of a heart issue if it turned out that I had one. But I was intimidated. Unlike a cut or a bruise, I couldn’t see with my own eyes the extent of the damage, nor could I track the recovery with my own eyes. It was all spooky. And watching the monitors didn’t help, because I didn’t know what the constant stream of numbers meant. I couldn’t help focusing on every beat of my heart. Was everything working okay in there?
Also troubling - what was this cardiac catheterization procedure that the cardiologist wanted to perform? I asked one of the nurses at the first hospital. She explained that a hollow tube called a catheter is inserted into a large blood vessel that leads to your heart. As a result of the procedure, they can find out that nothing is wrong all the way up to finding a serious problem that could lead to death. While I always like people to be upfront with me, given how my day had progressed so far, perhaps this was a little too candid.
I spent the next hour as a nervous wreck. But then I remembered I had my iPhone with me. My sister had already reached out to my boss to let him know I was in the hospital, and he indicated I should not worry about the office and to take care of myself. But I still felt a pull to reach out to my office to make sure things were covered in my absence. (Even in the cardiac unit, I guess old workaholic habits apparently die hard). I also reached out to friends to let them know that I was in the hospital and to seek reassurance. I also received a message from my fitness center friend, who said that she hoped I was enjoying my time off. I replied and let her know I was in the emergency room and why. She told me to make sure I checked in with her on my return.
I had to fast for the cardiac catheterization procedure the next morning. This was okay with me as I seemed to have lost the energy to eat. I did enjoy talking to the nurses in the cardiac section, and learning what they liked about working with patients. Since my body was still screaming for rest, I went to sleep early.
The next morning they took me in for the procedure. When I regained consciousness, my sister told me the doctor had reported that the procedure had not shown anything wrong with my heart. I was so relieved. I just wanted to go home. The cardiologist was hesitant to release me without figuring out what had caused the blackout. But I pleaded that I just wanted to get back to familiar surroundings as I worked with doctors there to figure out what caused the blackouts. I assured him I would make an appointment with my primary care physician as soon as I got home. I think he understood my point of view, and knew that I would take the follow-up process seriously. He said I could leave the hospital the next morning.
The doctor gave me a note to release me from work for one week. I think this is the one of the very few times in my 34 year work history that I ever took a week off due to an illness. Not helping matters, I also had banked a ton of annual leave during my 34 year career. Do you see yourself in the previous sentences? If so, you might want to put in your leave request now and begin the habit of spending more time focusing on you and your loved ones.
I took the train back home, and tried to just relax for the duration of the trip. But relaxation did not come easily when the cause of the blackout was unknown and I was still bone tired.
At least it appeared that my heart was okay, and that I could stop obsessing about how my heart functioned. But what else in my body was not performing up to par and how long would it take to pin down the cause? And when would I ever learn the lesson that things are not always as they appear?
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. She spent the next 7 years learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth. Then in October 2020, she received a heart transplant. This blog is about her journey of the heart.