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October 10th, 2020

Heart Patient In The 21st Century

I’ve not said much about it here on the blog…mostly on Facebook where I do most of my online socializing (here I just spill my guts), but some of you may recall my posting about a year ago that I had a heart attack. ,Which makes me a heart patient now I suppose. That counts as a preexisting condition doesn’t it. I’m still fine, mostly. I have the usual pill regimen, and I’ve been going to cardio therapy twice a week. But I’ve been finding it hard to take too seriously.

When I was a small boy my maternal grandmother, who was living with mom and I at the time, had a heart attack. It was the early 1960s and there wasn’t much the doctors could do for her other than prescribe some meds, keep her in bed, and wait to see if she survived it. For two months she was confined to bed in our apartment, and then it was a slow slog back to a semblance of wellness and her usual bitter crankiness. I had mine here in the 21st century, right in the ER where I’d gone thinking I was experiencing a really bad case of heartburn, and fretting about damage to my esophagus due to all the cigars I’d been smoking. They wheeled me right up to a surgical room where they inserted a snake with a drill of some sort into a major blood vessel in my right arm, drilled out the blockage, put in two stents, wheeled me into the cardio unit for observation, and in total I was in and out of the hospital in about a day and a half. When I got home orders were to relax for two weeks, but I was feeling great. Not exactly what I was expecting of a heart attack.

Of course I was lucky it wasn’t a very severe one. I didn’t die on the spot. It crept up on me slowly, like I was having heartburn more often than normal, then more frequently, and then finally constantly. When it suddenly felt like a horse standing on my chest it scared me and I called 911, but I was still convinced it was heartburn. There was none of the stabby pains I was told to expect in every TV and movie episode where someone has a heart attack. There were no cold clammy sweats and numbness of the limbs…except for a little at my fingertips that in retrospect I should have paid more attention to. But I was lucky it wasn’t worse. And that when the moment finally came I was already there in the ER. I haven’t had any subsequent heart problems. Until a couple nights ago.

I was lounging on the sofa watching the Smithsonian Channel’s Air Disasters…which seems a kinda grim form of entertainment but bear with me…in a time when contempt for science and reason is epidemic, and alternative facts shouting out actual facts, I really appreciate a series that walks you through how men and women of science, reason and logic work step by step to suss out a sequence of events that made a terrible accident happen, out of a lot of twisted and burnt metal and some data points in flight recorders and ground radar, and then put together a plan to keep it from happening again. The TV police procedurals that show how autopsies often point the finger directly at the killer have nothing on this. Twisted metal, pieces of wreckage, broken instruments, marks on a runway, ghostly radar echos, it isn’t just dead men who tell tales, to the scientific mind, everything tells a tale. I love it. What I don’t love is how…faithfully…the series shows us the accident itself.

So I’m watching this and the part where everyone dies is coming and my heart starts racing because I really don’t like watching that…and pretty soon I’m noticing my heart is really pounding. I mean…Really Pounding. So I stick on my blood oxygen and heart rate monitor and it’s showing my heart beating at 187. I wait for it to slow down and it doesn’t. Now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Am I about to have a stroke? Another heart attack? What the f*ck is going on!? I’m feeling no chest pains, no sweats, nothing but the creepy feeling of my heart pretending to be a machine gun. It doesn’t slow down. So I call 911. And back I go to the ER. One of the EMTs says to her teammates that she’d never seen a heart rate as fast as mine that night. It peaked in the EMT truck at something like 210+. 

When other means of getting it to slow down fail, drugs are given. That works. In the ER they draw some blood, take an x-ray to see if there is any new heart damage, and keep me under observation. Early in the morning they decide whatever it was that happened it’s over now, and I can go home. I was told I’d had an atrial fibrillation, which became a supraventricular tachycardia, or SVT as the ER nurses kept calling it. Basically my heart went nuts for a while, but it didn’t kill me. In fact, that I was in absolutely no pain and had no other symptoms, and that nothing like this had ever happened to me before, was something the doctor seemed to find worrisome. I asked him if he knew what caused the event. He said no. Atrial fibrillation can start suddenly and stop on its own. I asked him if mine would have stopped eventually. He said…maybe.

My manager at work tells me to take it easy for a couple days. In the meantime my cardiologist’s office gets news of my ER visit and asks me to come in…like right now…to discuss it. I get another cardiogram. I get another appointment for an echo EKG, like the one I had after the heart attack. And I get one of these…

 

It’s a heart monitor, which will record everything my heart does for the next two weeks. Then I mail it back and my cardiologist will take a look at the data. This sudden rapid heart beating has never happened to me before, but the thinking for the moment is I may have been having small-ish episodes of irregularity I just haven’t noticed because they came and went so fast. So they want a long duration record.

Look at that thing. This, as a co-worker says, is what has come of ubiquitous computing. Tiny but powerful CPUs and support chips so cheap to make you don’t even bother making a memory card slot for it. The entire thing is just a little stick-on device. A temporary flight data recorder for the human body. Not too long ago, according to a classmate who worked in healthcare, I’d have had to carry around a box and a bunch of wires connected to me. Now it’s just this stick-on thing.

Not looking forward to having to pull it back off though.

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