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February is American Heart Month and I Have the Gift Bag to Prove It

Early one December morning, my husband called 911 because my heart was beating so fast, we couldn’t count the beats. It wasn’t going away.

Fire-fighters arrived. They asked some questions and placed 12-lead wires on my body for an ECG. My symptoms were gone by the time they arrived, but they saw something. I would need a cardiologist and soon. I had a normal sinus rhythm, a non-specific ST abnormality, and a prolonged QT. They consulted the hospital and left it up to me if I wanted a transfer to the ER. They warned me that because I was presenting with no symptoms (at the moment) I would be low on the list and most likely released with a referral to a cardiologist. I declined to go, promising I’d get a referral to see a cardiologist as soon as possible.

I didn’t sleep, afraid I could have another episode and sleep through it and die. When the sun came up, I called my primary care doctor the moment they opened. I had to fight for an appointment through tears. I invoked my status as a mom with 8 young children and something wrong with my heart. MY HEART! They magically found an opening.

Not My Heart

The doctor referred me to a cardiologist who specializes in electrical issues. I saw him a few days later. My hernia surgery was the following week and he wanted me to be cleared before with a stress test and an echocardiograph—an ultrasound of my heart—first. The surgeon wanted these tests, too. I passed, so my surgery went ahead as planned. A week after getting out of the hospital, I was to start wearing a cardiac event monitor for 30 days to capture the racing heart and palpitations I described.

But while in the hospital, I experienced several bouts of tachychardia, including one that lasted for hours. I was put on telemetry monitoring for the remainder of my stay, thankfully. I was glad to be in a place where if something went wrong, help was right there. Still, I was scared. Plus, I had a lot of other issues going on related to my surgery that had nothing to do with my heart.

The cardiologist was told of my episodes. I saw him in the hospital, too. He wanted me to start using the monitor immediately and not wait a week. The day after being released, I visited the cardiologist and was given a LifeStart monitor. I was taught how and where to place the leads and given a small black box to clip to my pocket. It looks like a pager from 1991. It is cumbersome and bothersome, but my heart continued to feel like it shuddered, sputtered, and raced so I knew it was an annoying necessity. I push the ‘record’ button when my heart starts misbehaving. With our home phone, recordings are transmitted to a call center where they are read by technicians and forwarded back to the cardiologist.

My Jewelry

At my follow-up appointment, I was told I have paroxysmal atrial tachychardia. It’s more bothersome than serious. It can get so bad it interferes with life but I wasn’t at that point. There was nothing to do but live with it. Medications could be introduced later, but only after it was serious enough. Extremely serious cases require an invasive procedure called ablation. It was good to have an answer. I kept the monitor for another 30 days because I had stopped wearing it a few days before my follow-up. The adhesive was making my skin burn and swell. They gave hypoallergenic electrodes to me. I took more readings and transmitted them.

Late last week, I got a call from my cardiologist. He was changing his diagnosis, based on the newer readings. I have atrial fibrillation. This is more serious and he wanted to see me in clinic.

When I signed in, I was given a bag full of information for women with heart disease. Uh, thanks. I remember getting gift bags at my OB when I was declared pregnant. It’s really not as much fun, people, to get the bag with the red handle.

I am 40, a mom, a woman, and I have atrial fibrillation. It’s not hugely uncommon…if you are over age 70. I have a 5-17 times greater risk for stroke and must take daily aspirin for prevention. It will get worse as I get older and the risk for stroke grows with each passing year. My grandma Alice died from her stroke. But how does an electrical heart defect cause a stroke? I was confused, too. Here’s a good answer:

Depending on the age of a person, and the specific cause of chronic atrial fibrillation, the incidence of stroke in people with this disorder can range from 5 to 17-fold higher than that of people without atrial fibrillation. Most commonly, atrial fibrillation causes cardioembolic strokes — those caused by a clot that escapes from the heart and blocks a blood vessel in the brain. Blood clots are known to form whenever blood remains static for prolonged periods of time, or as a result of turbulent blood flow, both of which are likely to occur during the erratic and disorganized heart beat of atrial fibrillation.

I will continue to wear my monitor until late next week when I pack it up and send it to the monitoring company. I will see my cardiologist in 3 months. I might change from aspirin to a different medication, but I have asthma so my choices are limited (which is why I’m starting with aspirin). And I will work to prevent strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots in myself and in others. Please consider learning about heart disease risk factors. Nobody is immune.

Heart disease is the #1 killer of women. I don’t want to be one of them. I’d rather go out sky-diving at age 115 clutching Roman candles, singing Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs.

19 comments to February is American Heart Month and I Have the Gift Bag to Prove It

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