By Patti Samar
Blue Water Woman
When that telemarketing call came last year and told me I should “press one” if my warranty had expired, turns out I should have, indeed, pressed one.
Who knew that my warranty was only good for 57 years?
Since last fall, a weird, mostly-non-related collection of medical maladies has struck me. While I’m certainly no spring chicken, I feel like the healthiest woman alive (well, except for that part where I’m supposed to exercise more and eat right most of the time).
And, if not the healthiest woman alive, at least a “regularly functioning” prototype. Though I’m not in the best shape of my life, I’m doing okay (well, sort of okay). At least, for 57, I thought so. I visit my doctor regularly, all of my vitals are good, my annual blood panel comes back clean, and I’ve been fortunate enough to escape any number of medical issues over the past 57 years. My weight goes up and down 10 to 15 pounds every few years as I learn how to balance eating the right foods with a few (and then sometimes a few too many) indulgences and my ever-slowing metabolism and hormones, but overall, most days, I walk around feeling like a freakin’ healthy rock star.
So, during this past winter of COVID, while many people wiled away their excess free time reading books or binge-watching Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, I passed the time sitting in emergency departments and physician waiting rooms.
Hey, a gal’s gotta be somewhere, right?
A wrist broken on Halloween (while sailing, no less, because, like, doesn’t everyone go sailing on Halloween?) led to a trip to the ER, a cast, orthopedic appointments, an MRI and several months of thrice-weekly occupational therapy, because, apparently, my wrist needed to find a way to support itself.
Another malady led to a mid-term, bonus colonoscopy (What? You mean I get to have a colonoscopy after only five years and I don’t have to wait the full 10? Lucky me!). The result: all is well. Yay! Finally some good news after several doctor’s appointments and their accompanying oh-so-fun examinations of my colon department.
And in the midst of all of this, during a visit with my family physician to discuss yet another benign medical foible, she asked me, right before she left the exam room: “Is there anything else today?”
And bam, just like that, four months later, I now have a bionic heart.
What, you ask? A “bionic” heart?
Yup. Known otherwise as a pacemaker.
So, back in February, when my doc asked if there was anything else to discuss, I off-handedly mentioned, “I’m getting these weird heart palpitations…randomly…it sometimes feels like my heart is beating out of my chest.”
Well, I discovered at that moment that when you use the word “heart” in a sentence spoken, out loud, to your doctor, all of a sudden there is an EKG machine being wheeled into the room.
In the past four months, I’ve now had at least a dozen EKGs and it literally takes longer to put the little sticky pads on your body than it does to do that actual test. (Public Service Announcement: It takes longer than performing all of the dozen EKGs combined to remove the sticky residue left behind on places I didn’t even know existed on my body until, months later, I put on a bathing suit and found sticky residue left over from random EKG patches.)
But I digress.
The doc looked at the results of that first EKG and said, “Hmm…mostly normal, but let’s get a 24-hour Holter monitor on your heart just to make sure.”
That 24-hour monitor produced results that none of us saw coming: Glory be, my heart stops, randomly, during the day, for many seconds at a time. While I’m vertical. While I’m working. While I’m out and about driving. While I’m laughing and having fun with friends. While I’m walking down staircases.
Apparently, many people discover this problem when their heart pauses long enough that they actually pass out.
And, therein, lies the problem. No one wants me passing out while I’m behind the wheel of a car or while I’m walking down a staircase.
According to my electrophysiologist (What? You don’t have one? All the cool kids over 70 do!), the accidents that can happen once you black out as a result of a heart pause are actually a lot more dangerous than your heart stopping for a few seconds.
Until your heart decides one day that it doesn’t want to kick start itself back up again, and then you’re dead, and I hear that is likely not nearly as fun as being alive and causing all kinds of mischief.
So, the past few months have been a whirlwind of testing and doctor’s appointments that led to, on June 9, the placement of a pacemaker to keep my heart ticking on schedule.
The good news is that I do not actually have heart disease; my heart is good and strong and healthy and the plumbing is in excellent condition. My blood pressure is super-duper perfect.
The bad news is my heart’s electrical system, which is also known as everyone’s natural pacemaker, is deteriorating. It is not genetic or hereditary. In some patients who have heart disease or a host of other medical issues, it just comes with the territory.
In other people, like me, it just randomly happens and no one knows why. But, it’s fixable and having a pacemaker without heart disease means I should live until the end of my natural life.
All of that is wonderful news, in spite of the fact that the past few months have felt like a real whirlwind of sterile white walls and breezy hospital gowns.
But the thing is this: I almost didn’t mention my heart palpitations to my doctor. Truth be told, they’d been going on for probably a couple of years with increasing frequency which, finally, led me to blurt out my “oh-by-the-way” question at the end of an appointment meant to address a completely separate issue.
What made me ask that question, at that time? I’m not really sure. My blood pressure is historically low and impressively (if I do say so myself) great. My pulse is always completely normal. No physician has ever questioned my heartbeat after using a stethoscope on my chest and back. For many years, I ran, walked and worked out regularly (ahem, admittedly, not-so-much since the pandemic hit and my regular visits to the gym ended), so I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling like the epitome of health.
Even throughout this ordeal, I felt a little smug with regard to my overall health. Numerous healthcare providers have asked for my “list” of medications, and I provide just one that I take daily for a very manageable chronic condition. “Just one?” they ask incredulously.
“Yup,” I confirm, with a smugness only the “truly” healthy can have.
“But you’re so young to get a pacemaker!” no less than 10 care providers remarked to me on the day of my surgery. I even felt smug about that, thinking: “I take such good care of myself I found this problem decades before others even know they have it!”
But truth be told, I’m really just an example of a lesson in learning to listen to your body.
And, second truth be told, I’d postponed mentioning this to my doc for a couple of years.
I shudder to think what might have happened if I had kept my mouth shut that day and then days, weeks or months later, instead of finding myself lying on a surgical table, staring at the ceiling in an operating room, wondering, “How in the hell did I end up here?” I could have found myself lying on the slab in a morgue asking myself the same question, had my heart stopped and caused a catastrophic accident that killed me, or, worse, killed others.
So, what did we learn today, kids?
We learned that women, in particular, don’t always pay attention to their health because they are so busy worrying about and taking care of other people in their lives. I’m probably somewhat of an except because I’m childless and I leave my poor husband to fend for himself on any given day. I’m not exactly nurturing to others (see: childless because she would have had a hard time keeping track of miniature people), but I do pay attention (most of the time) to what my body is telling me.
But many women do not. The American Heart Association celebrates women’s heart health every February for several reasons. Among them? Helping women understand that symptoms of heart issues and stroke are often ignored by women. Why? Because they just figure they are feeling tired and run down because they are so busy taking care of entire armies of other people: their children, their spouses, their friends and co-workers.
To be honest, over the past year, when my heart palpitations got increasingly worse, I honestly assumed it was some residual effect of stress caused by the any number of ways my life was affected by the pandemic. I knew I felt more anxiety than I’d ever felt in my life, at times, especially during the early days of the pandemic when there were so many unknowns. My heart beating harder and faster in my chest? I just thought it was simple everyday stress as a result of living through a worldwide health crisis.
Have you ever heard a story about a woman who, while relatively young-ish (let’s say 40 to 65) just drops dead of a heart issue or stroke one day while walking across a room? “Oh, poor Susie,” everyone says at her funeral. “You’d never have guessed there was anything wrong with her.”
From the coffin, Susie agrees, saying, “I thought I was just working too hard. And who has time for a doctor’s appointment?”
I’m so glad I spoke up and asked my doctor about my heart palpitations, even though I didn’t make a separate appointment just for them (though I should have).
And, for the record, the pacemaker isn’t directly addressing those chest pounding palpitations. I was diagnosed with what is called “sick sinus (node) syndrome” which means that my heart stops randomly during the day. Wearing a heart monitor helped us discover that my heart pauses. The palpitations might, slowly, go away as my heart begins beating with regularity again. Or they may not. If that is the case, the palpitations can be addressed with medication.
I did experience a post-surgery scare that landed me in the hospital overnight, which led to the discovery of yet a few more random, weird, warranty-expiring health concerns aside from my heart that will keep me fully apprised of the current state of doctor’s offices far and wide over the next few months, in addition to the many follow-up appointments to make sure my pacemaker is actually working and doing what it is supposed to do inside of my chest.
My request of all of you out there reading this: If you even THINK something, anything, might be wrong, or if something just feels “off,” please don’t put it off. Please stop reading now and call your doctor and make an appointment.
My second request: If your physician dismisses your concerns and you still think something feels “off,” please do not hesitate to get a second opinion. I worked in a hospital for several years and I learned, from working with some very wonderful doctors, that good physicians welcome patients who seek a second opinion. A second opinion might simply confirm that everything is, indeed, A-OK. Or, a second opinion might be a needed second-set of eyes and ears considering the problem in a different way.
My third request: If you are not comfortable with your physician for any reason whatsoever, do not hesitate to change doctors. I love my family physician because I feel she listens to me and works with me to address all of my health concerns. When I’ve needed specialists, I am not afraid to schedule an appointment to interview a doctor. I am fortunate enough to have health insurance that allows me to select the physician of my choice. Always remember that you are the customer. A good physician will listen and care and walk through life with you, treating you with dignity and respect.
I’m certainly blessed to have an army of those physicians in my life right now.
And then finally, after you’ve made that long postponed doctor’s appointment, drop me an email and let me know that you did. You and I will both feel better knowing that you are trying to take the absolute best care of yourself.
Don’t delay. You deserve health and wellness.
p.s. – I would be remiss if I did not thank a) the many wonderful healthcare professionals who have treated me over the past eight months. Everyone from the occupational therapists and physicians, to the nurses and nurse’s assistants and thoughtful caring office staff have all shown such empathy and compassion; and b) I need to thank my many advertisers in Blue Water Woman and the clients of my advertising agency, The Write Company, all of whom have been exceptionally understanding over the past eight months as I’ve tried to get work done in between medical appointments…and there have been many. And oftentimes, those appointments are either physically, emotionally or mentally exhausting and just slipping back behind my desk and getting back to the grind hasn’t been easy. I appreciate their patience and kindness so very much.