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Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Heart of the Matter - Part Two

A prospective guitar student had left a phone message that he was interested in some lessons, so I called him back. Much to my surprise, when I called, a woman answered instead, and for some dumb reason, I didn't say anything and just hung up thinking I had dialed the wrong number.

Minutes later, the guy called me back and when I said hello I could hear a woman crying in the background. He started to yell at me, telling me never to call him again. I was completely confused until I heard the woman crying out "Who is she? Why do you always do this to me?" Suddenly it occurred to me that she thought I was his mistress or something. I tried to explain why I had hung up, but he just kept yelling at me. My heart started pounding, I didn't know what to do, I was freaking out.

And then I woke up.

Who knows where the dream came from, but the pounding of my heart part, that was real. Oh no, not this again.

The palpitations occur every couple of days, sometimes just for a second or two, sometimes for an hour or so. But the "big" one hits me every couple of months. And this was a big one. The palpitations become more severe, and then it turns into the flutter. Atrial Flutter. My heart races sometimes up to twice its normal speed, sometimes for hours.  The other night, I calculated it was about six hours...from 1:30am when I woke up with it, until about 7:30am.

Some of you might remember a blog post I wrote a couple of years back called The Heart of the Matter, about my experience in the emergency ward. That was a particularly bad episode of atrial flutter, but at the time I didn't know what it was. Since then, I've become quite educated about it.

The more common form of this malady is Atrial Fibrillation, or a-fib as sufferers like to call it. A-fib is an abnormal beating of the heart, very much like palpitations, that also goes on for long periods. There are a lot of causes, some people live with it for many years, others go on medications, and yet others get a procedure called a catheter ablation, which I will describe later.

I get a-fib too, and most of the time it's relatively mild. But when I get the flutters, I'm down and out for as long as its around. If I stand up, I get dizzy because my heart isn't pumping properly, so I have to lie in bed and wait it out. I'm lucky, because eventually it stops on its own. The longest I've had it for is 11 hours, usually it's somewhere between 5 and 7 hours. But some with this condition have to go into emergency every time it happens to have their heart slowed down intravenously because it won't stop. That's what happened to me on my first emergency visit.

Palpitations never used to bother me because I read somewhere that they were normal, and certainly a normal part of menopause. But I remember an incident about four years ago when I went to visit my Dad in the care facility. He was in pretty bad shape that day, and I was more than a little stressed. That's when the palpitations started, and this time they didn't stop for several hours. That's the first time I was alarmed enough to realize something else was wrong. But when they went away, I didn't experience them again for awhile and just forgot about it.

Then it happened again a few more times, enough for me to ask my doctor about it. Not long after is when I had my emergency visit and was referred to a cardiologist.

It took about four months to get in to see the cardiologist the first time. I was told it could take up to a year, so I was prepared to wait, and I assumed that there were probably a lot of people out there with conditions worse than mine who would naturally be first in line. When I finally got in to see him, the cardiologist described what I had. "First of all, it won't kill you!" he said, adding that it was probably caused by my high blood pressure, which had been unchecked for years, and told me that I had to go on blood thinners right away because of the possibility of a stroke. He said that I could also go on beta blockers to slow my heart down, or have a catheter ablation performed. At the time, I guess I was a bit overwhelmed, so I took his prescription for the blood thinner and told him I needed to think about it.

I've been lucky because I've always been a healthy person, so the whole notion of a heart condition threw me a little! The cardiologist sent some literature home with me, so I read all about it. My high blood pressure did some damage over the years, and as a result, a few little cells begin to beat out of time with the rest of the heart every now and then, causing the feeling of palpitations. It's like a short circuit that upsets the normal rhythm of the heart.

At first I thought I could live with it or maybe just take the beta blockers. Once I found out that beta blockers would make me FATTER THAN I ALREADY AM because they slow down your heart and also your metabolism, I gave up that idea. And after a few more episodes, I decided maybe the catheter ablation would be the way to go.

My doctor sent in a requisition for another visit to the cardiologist, and a couple of days later, the cardiologist office called just to check on some tests I'd had. And then I hunkered down and waited. And waited. It was almost a year after that, when I had two really bad episodes only two weeks apart, that I decided to check up on my appointment. And wouldn't you know? I was not on the waiting list. They had my doctor's request, but somehow I got lost in the shuffle. $*@#!

Two months after that, I finally got my second appointment and I cut right to the chase. Was I a candidate for this ablation procedure? Yes I was, he said. Thank goodness.

A catheter ablation is day surgery and involves inserting a catheter through a vein in your groin, all the way up into your heart. They search for the cells that are misfiring and basically just freeze or burn them. It takes 3 to 4 hours, has a 95% success rate for atrial flutter and will also reduce my incidences of a-fib by about 50%. My surgery is schedule for May 18th.

I ended my first blog about this with a list of things I've learned. Well, I've learned so much more since then! Here's my new list:

1. Don't go anywhere near beta blockers.
2. Don't assume they're going to call you when they say they are. Holy crap, I've had to follow up on EVERYTHING so far!
3. Beta blockers are bad.
4. Wine did not cause my condition. Thank GOD.
5. I'm lucky that my heart can be fixed, thank goodness for my otherwise good health!
6. Beta bad.
7. Not every surgery has an 18 month waiting period. Yay!
8. I will be able to drive a car AND use my driver on the links 48 hours after surgery, but no heavy lifting. Who wants to be my caddy?? :-)
9. I'm forever grateful for a medical system that doesn't charge me a small fortune to be repaired.

Stay tuned for Part Three, my post-surgery analysis.

IJ