Hiccup of the Heart

And just like that, our new year was off to a rough start…

Mama ‘Skiy has been been considered a poster child of health. She’s always been active, she doesn’t let things get to her, and she always has a positive outlook.

Well, on January 9 she ended up in the hospital.

Long story short, she was diagnosed with “anxiety disorder” in 2001, and at the time it was determined a hormonal imbalance due to oral contraceptives was the cause. Ever since then she has had “anxiety” attacks and symptoms, which would occur out of the blue and for no reason: difficulty breathing, dizziness, tightness of the chest, racing heartbeats, skipped heartbeats…

In the days leading up to January 9, she had felt out of sorts. She would feel exhausted thoughout the day, despite a lot of sleep. She would wake up some mornings feeling as though she’d run a marathon all night, regardless she had slept 8-10 hours. Then she would experience palpitations that would leave her scared and in pain.

That particular day, though, she was feeling especially tired. Then every couple of hours she would have a heart palpitation. Around 4:00 that afternoon she was standing by the kitchen sink when she had an incredibly strong and painful heart palpitation that left her dizzy, nearly made her pass out, and left part of her vision gone. She lost her peripheral vision and her tunnel vision was extremely fuzzy. After about 15 minutes of this she called Papa ‘Skiy home from work and he took her to the hospital.

She’d never before experienced anything like this.

Mind you, Mama ‘Skiy had been to the hospital twice a year since 2013 because her palpitations had gotten worse and her breathlessness and near-fainting spells terrified her. However, every time she would get examined, she’d go through a series of tests that showed nothing was wrong and she would leave the hospital having been reprimanded for not taking anti-anxiety medication, especially since she’d had a history of “panic attacks,” which had to be the problem. After all, she was “too young” for there to be anything seriously wrong with her and a full cardiac workup in 2013, complete with a 24-hour holter monitor and an exercise stress test, showed her heart with just fine.

So we arrived at the ER and couldn’t find a parking space. None. Nothing at all. Frustrated and knowing the nurses and doctor would just send her home with a clean bill of health, Mama told Papa to just go home. We left and a few minutes later something told Mama we needed to go back to the hospital. So Papa turned around and this time we found a parking space.

She checked in at the ER counter and we waited in the waiting room…for an hour and a half. Her symptoms got worse and new ones appeared: muffled hearing, excruciating pain in the back between the shoulderblades, discomfort in her left jaw and arm… Papa grew impatient and kept asking for her to be seen.

When she was finally called back by the triage nurse, Mama did something she’d not done before when she went to the ER: she refrained from telling the staff about her “anxiety disorder.” Suddenly, everyone took her seriously. Nobody rolled their eyes at her or asked why she wasn’t on medication.

Soon after triage, she was taken to an exam room. She was changed into a hospital gown, examined, got a chest X-ray and was hooked up for a quick EKG, and had blood drawn. Mama and Papa were informed it would take a couple of hours before the results would arrive, so they decided Papa would take the boys home and they would wait there. We felt there was no reason for everyone to just sit around and wait. M ‘Skiy was heading for the exam room door, ready to leave, and D ‘Skiy was right behind him. Papa gave Mama a kiss and was holding her hand, when suddenly Mama felt odd…and then blacked out.

The machines started screaming.

Mama had flatlined. Her eyes were still open, but her heart had stopped.

Papa ran out of the room for help. Soon a tech started CPR on Mama, several nurses came to the room, and a crash cart was being wheeled in, nearly running the boys over.

After more than 12 seconds, Mama suddenly woke up. The defibrillator pads had been put on her but the machine had not been hooked up to her yet.

The first thing she saw was Papa’s panic-stricken face. Confused, she looked around and asked what had happened. Randomly, one of the many new faces in the room answered with, “You just earned yourself a pacemaker.”

She looked back at Papa and he explained what had taken place. She remembered holding his hand and feeling dizzy and nauseated, then she remembered her vision going black, and she also remembered hearing a bunch of noise before she could finally see again.

Her chest was also in a lot of pain, and when she commented on that the tech that had revived her said he had to perform CPR and the chest compressions resulted in the pain.

Soon, Papa was on the phone with Mama’s parents, explaining what had happened, and then Mama spoke to them, shaking uncontrollably and in tears.

She ended up getting more blood drawn and going through more tests. Then she was tranferred to ICU, mostly for observation.

Mama’s parents and brother made the three-hour trip across the state to see her and take care of our boys. There was no way to know how long she’d be hospitalized or what would happen next, so they wanted to be nearby and took care of the boys for the week.

The cardiologist on call that night ordered tests for any and every possible cause as to why her heart had stopped: proteins, Lyme disease, electrolyte imbalance, dehydration… Everything. Over the course of two days she had dozens of vials of blood taken.

After weighing every option, listening to multiple expert opinions, doing research, and every imaginable test result coming up negative, there was only a cardiac catheterization left to perform. We consented to either whatever surgery would be deemed necessary if the catherization showed a problem or a pacemaker implantation.

In the afternoon of January 11, Mama was taken to the OR for the cardiac catheterization. Everything looked fine: the structure of the heart was strong and healthy, there was no scar tissue or damage, and there were no blackages of any type. No heart surgery was necessary.

The only thing left was the implant of the pacemaker.

And fortunately, that went smoothly.

And it was at that point when the defibrillator pads she had received in the ER two days prior could finally be removed.

She spent the night in her ICU room recovering from the procedure. The next day she was transferred to a recovery room on another floor, and she was finally discharged the evening of January 12.

At 36 years old, just two months before turning 37 — which happens to be tomorrow — she received a pacemaker. And she’ll need one for the rest of her life.

It has taken her awhile to accept that she did not do and could not have done anything to cause or prevent this from happening. Her natural pacemaker — the sinoatrial node — no longer works properly. And the problem is congenital. She was born with it, did not receive it from her parents, and can’t pass it down to our sons. It was just a matter of time before it gave out.

It’s been a rough two months, recovering from the procedure altogether, needing to limit the use of her left arm for a month, and then using and exercising the arm again to regain her strength and full range of motion of the joint… It was especially difficult for her to depend on others for things we’d otherwise take for granted: getting dressed, showering, going to the bathroom…

Yes, it sucks. But it could be worse. She could not have listened to her body. Papa ‘Skiy could have not come home from work and taken her to the ER. She could have told the ER staff about her so-called “anxiety disorder,” resulting in them not taking her symptoms seriously. We could have been complacent and figured nothing to be wrong, because, after all, the medical experts had told her for years she was healthy, too young, and that it was all in her head.

This could have happened sometime during the cross-country three-month trip! Perhaps on the snowy trail high up in the mountains of Alaska, on the path in the evergreen forest in Washington, touring the isolated and wooded battlegrounds in Virginia.

It could have happened while she was driving our sons along the interstate or to a park in the town we live, causing a dangerous and potentially fatal automobile accident.

There are a lot of things that could have happened. But they didn’t. She was in the right place, at the right time.

So now she has a dual-chambered pacemaker that we’ve named Thumper Jumper, or TJ. He’s doing his job well, as she can feel him kick on every now and then. It’s been more than two months now and she hasn’t felt this well in years. Not weeks, not months; years! Lo and behold, her “anxiety” symptoms were actually early warning signs of her problem with the sinoatrial node. It was just easier — and made more sense — to diagnose her with anxiety disorder, when in reality she has what’s known as Sick Sinus Syndrome, or SSS.

Listen to your body. Pay close attention to how you feel and what that little voice inside your head tells you.

Medical professionals may be just that, but it is called the “practice of medicine” for a reason. And it doesn’t matter how long they went to school for or have practiced in their field. Nobody knows your body like you do.

After all, you’ve known and lived with it your entire life.

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