This has been the "Summer of the Heart" for me.
In my last blog post, when I recounted all the adventures on my trip out west, I left out one huge part of the adventure. Today I will fill in that part of the story for you, which actually began during exam week at school. But to understand that portion of the saga, I need to give you some background information. (I could go on and on, but I'll try to give you a Reader's Digest condensed version, shrinking 15+ years into a few paragraphs.)
For about 15 years I have been aware of my heart fluttering or even racing from time to time. About 5 years ago it started happening fairly frequently, sometimes accompanied with lightheadedness. Because of some family history, my doctor referred me to a cardiologist who scheduled me for a nuclear stress test. The test revealed that there were no blockages and that my heart was pumping my blood very well. This was good news to me since my dad died of a heart attack at the age of 42. The autopsy revealed that several of his coronary arteries were almost completely blocked.
The cardiologist released me to my family doctor who said he had no idea why I was experiencing what I was, but to let him know if I had further difficulties. During the several months following the stress test, I had hardly any episodes of my heart racing. That is, until I went to see my doctor for my annual physical. As I sat on the table waiting for the doctor, I felt my heart start to race. I decided not to say anything and wait to see what the doctor said when he heard it. He kept moving the stethoscope around on my chest and finally asked, "Are you OK?" I replied, "It's fast, isn't it?" He responded, "It's crazy fast!" He had his nurse give me an EKG, but my heart had already stopped racing as the nurse put the pads in place.
When the doctor came back in, he said he now knew what I was talking about. He said, "You have SVT." I feigned horror and said, "Oh NO! ... What's that?" He told me SVT is short for supraventricular tachycardia." Again I said, "Oh NO! ... What's that?" He explained that during an episode of SVT the upper two chambers of the heart beat super fast — sometimes between 200 and 300 beats a minute — while the lower two chambers of the heart beat at their normal pace. He said that one of the results is that the blood is not circulating efficiently and the brain is deprived of oxygen. That's what was causing my lightheadedness at times. He said he was glad that I had had testing done several months earlier because it showed that my heart was fine, other than the occasional rhythm problem. I asked him if there was anything that triggers SVT. He said smoking, alcohol, and drugs could cause it. None of those were part of my life. He said some people noticed SVT after drinking excessive caffeine. That particular morning I had not yet had coffee since I was on a fast for blood work. And then he mentioned that a big trigger can be stress. Bingo! That was my trigger! (More about this later....)
Since I had had hardly any episodes of SVT in the several months between the stress test and the physical, the doctor suggested that, rather than putting me on beta blockers, we should just watch and wait. And that was a good approach. Since the fall of 2011 I have had only infrequent episodes of SVT. However, this past semester was a particularly stressful one for me. I had quite a bit to do for one of my courses that I had reworked. My mother, who had been under hospice care for almost two and a half years, began to decline rapidly in late March and early April. When she passed away in mid-April, we went up to Ohio for her funeral, at which I officiated. That was less than two weeks before the end of the semester. After our return from that, I faced getting caught up in my classes from my several days away, preparing final exams, lots of grading, tons of other paperwork, and preparing for the trip to Oregon. Remember that stress is one of the triggers of SVT....
Early Thursday morning of exam week I woke up during the night with a charley horse in my leg, probably from scrambling the previous evening to get our lawn mowed before my upcoming trip. I got up to walk it off, and while I was up I thought I'd use the restroom. While I was in the bathroom, I thought I was going to faint, so I sat down on the floor. After a minute or two I thought I could make it back to bed. As I was walking across our bedroom, I passed out onto the floor (this was a first for me), waking Becka. She called 911, and I ended up eventually in the emergency room. I was concerned because I had two exams to give that morning and grades were due by 2:00 in the afternoon. From my cubicle in the ER Becka called a colleague of mine, I talked him through where to find the exams in my office, and he gave my exams for me.
They ran all kinds of tests to make sure I had not had a heart attack or a stroke. At about 11:00 the ER doctor told me that everything looked good and I was low-risk for a heart attack. He told me he saw no problem with my going on the trip to Oregon on Saturday, but he strongly recommended that I contact my own doctor about getting me set up with a Holter monitor. Becka and I went home for a quick lunch, and then I went to campus to finish grading my exams and submitting my semester grades. My grades were submitted with 9 minutes to spare on that 2:00 deadline. When I got home, I called my doctor's office about a monitor.
Friday morning I got a call from the cardiologist's office to come in that afternoon for a heart monitor. Because of that appointment, I missed my first graduation in my 43 years of teaching. My flight to Portland OR was at 7:40 a.m. on Saturday. I got up and leisurely got ready since I had packed the night before. While I was eating my oatmeal, I felt my heart start to race. Hooray! It was actually doing it while I was wearing a monitor. It continued to race for 90 minutes! Our son Mark picked me up to drive me to the airport. We were going to stop at Starbucks for coffee on the way but decided against it while I was in an SVT episode, and caffeine might not be the best thing for me at that moment.
My heart was beating so hard that you could easily feel it by putting your hand on my chest. I actually was feeling pretty gross, but knowing that what was happening was not life-threatening and would end on its own, I continued on. Going through TSA wearing a heart monitor, having your heart racing, standing in line for a half hour, and feeling gross already was quite an experience. I was sent through a "special line" where my hands and the monitor were swabbed for explosives. It was determined that I was not a threat, and I ambled out of there to finally sit down in the waiting area.
On the flight to Las Vegas I sat next to a teaching colleague who graduated with me from college and his wife. They were going to visit family in California. On our cross-country flight we had lots of time to talk. I shared with them what I was going through and found out that my colleague's brother also has SVT. He has been able to control his with medications, but he had also been told he could have a procedure called catheter ablation that would fix the problem and allow him to go off the meds. We were all making connections in Las Vegas and had a nice lunch together, after I had slipped into the men's room to remove my heart monitor. My 24 hours were up shortly before we landed in Vegas, but I decided (I believe wisely so) not to remove the monitor and the pads and wires on the plane. Wouldn't that have caused a grand ruckus?! 😀
After the cross-country drive back to Greenville, as described in my last blog post, I turned the heart monitor in on Monday morning and eagerly awaited the results. Later that week I got a call from the cardiologist's office to come in for an explanation of the results. I learned that what my doctor had heard five years ago was indeed SVT. I learned that, during that episode of SVT, my heart was beating an average of 190 beats per minute, and at one point hit 253 bpm! Just for a point of reference, my normal resting heart rate is 60-65 bpm.
The cardiologist said that the best thing for me to do was to have an ablation. He explained the procedure, which I had already researched after talking to my friends on the flight. As much as I didn't like the idea of having the surgery, I was ready to be done with SVT and agreed to proceed. My surgery was scheduled for July 12. A few weeks before surgery I had a particularly hard episode of SVT that left me wiped out for several days. It was a reminder that I didn't want to experience that any more, not knowing when or where it could happen.
At my pre-op visit it was decided that I should go for a stress test a week before the ablation, just to make sure I had no blockages. I went for the stress test and I felt as if it had gone really well. The physician's assistant who administered the test said he saw some changes in my heart beats that made him wonder if I might have some blockages. Another doctor looked at the results and they were sent back to my cardiologist. I got a call saying they were making an appointment for me to see another cardiologist to get her input before proceeding with my abation the next week. I learned from the doctor that there are two kinds of cardiologists — electricians and plumbers. I had been seeing an "electrician" for my arrhythmia problem, but I would also now be consulting a "plumber" about possible blockages. (The doctor's words, not mine.)
They got me in to see her the next day. She said that after reviewing everything, she saw no reason why they shouldn't do the ablation the next week. She said that I had gone for a full 9 minutes on the treadmill and showed no signs of distress afterwards. But she wanted me to come in a month afterward to schedule a different kind of stress test, just to be sure there were no blockages. So in mid-August I will enter into phase two of my heart saga.
I had the surgery last week as scheduled, and honestly the ablation itself was a piece of cake. I had no idea what they were doing during the procedure, thanks to the meds. They tell me they conversed with me throughout the surgery, but I have absolutely no recollection of it at all. Who knows what top secret information I might have divulged?! The normally 2-3 hour procedure went well and was actually shorter because of my heart's cooperating with the whole thing. One step, after doing a 3D electrical map of the heart is to throw the heart into an episode of SVT racing so that they can compare the electrical mapping during SVT to the normal mapping. But just as they were beginning the procedure and I was in lala land, my heart went into SVT on its own — over 200 beats a minute! So they were able to see that first and skip the step of having to try to induce the erratic heart rhythm. I know that the Lord graciously orchestrated the whole thing, and my surgery lasted only about an hour and fifteen minutes.
The absolutely worst parts of the ablation were the weeks of anticipating the surgery, the insertion of an IV into each arm (just in case), and very worst — the removal of the bandages and some skin the following day! And subsequently I have had some sort of allergic reaction in the area covered by the bandage — lots of burning and itching. It actually looked a lot like an reaction I told about in another post. The site of the entry itself has been only a little sore. I am so glad to be on this side of the procedure, I'm glad I did it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat, so to speak. A week to the day after my surgery and after all the final restrictions were lifted, I began one of my summer projects — painting our living room.
I watched some videos on YouTube — probably several too many, in fact. But I found the video linked here to be the most helpful to me as I faced the surgery.
That's probably more than you ever wanted to know, if you have made it this far in the blog post. But I know some of you will find it informative, and my hope is that it might be of help to people who are going through what I did prior to the diagnosis and eventual surgery.
For those who want just the humor my blog posts bring, here's a summer rerun of a post I did 8 years ago.
Things you don't want to hear during surgery
Wait a minute, if this is his spleen, then what's that?
Someone call the janitor--we're going to need a mop.
Bo! Bo! Come back with that! Bad dog!
Hand me that...uh...that uh...thingie.
Oh no! I *know* I had my wristwatch on when I came in here!
Oops! Hey, has anyone ever survived 500 ml of this stuff before?
Everybody stand back! I lost my contact lens!
Could you stop that thing from beating; it's throwing my concentration off.
What's this doing here?
I hate it when they're missing stuff in here.
Better save that. We might need it for an autopsy.
That's cool! Now can you make his leg twitch?
I wish I hadn't forgotten my glasses.
You did WHAT to our car?!
Well folks, this will be an experiment for all of us.
Sterile, schmerile. The floor's clean, right?
Anyone see where I left that scalpel?
OK, now take a picture from this angle. This is truly a freak of nature.
It's gonna blow! Everyone take cover!
Nurse, did this patient sign the organ donation card?
Don't worry. I think it is sharp enough.
Rats! Page 47 of the manual is missing!
FIRE! FIRE! Everyone get out!
Fortunately I have no recollections of what was said in the operating room.
When I was anticipating my upcoming ablation, several things came my way that were a real comfort to me. The Sunday morning preceding my surgery, the choir at church sang a song called I Am Not Alone. If you'd like to hear one version of it, here's a link to it. Also one of my long-time readers sent me the following picture.
I knew the Great Physician would be with me as I went through surgery, but it was nice to have a visual reminder.
I will update you on what I find out in August. I hope I have no blockages and will need nothing more done at this time.
"Nothing you suffer derails God's plans for you." — Drew Conley
For me this summer, OR has meant not only Oregon, but also Operating Room!
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