Today, I decided I wouldn’t write fiction. Instead, I’ll share an actual life story. Why? Because it taught me a thing or two about valuing the moment. This is the story of when my heart stopped beating.
On October 30th 2006, my heart started overdoing its job again. It happened before, usually for anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. Sinus tachycardia is the clinical term; basically, my heart beat as fast as if I was running for my life, even though I was barely walking.
I had seen a doctor about that a year before. He didn’t quite believe me and declared me fit after a couple of tests. The diagnosis convinced me that maybe the whole thing was normal, which is why it went unchecked for so long. On October 30th 2006, however, the accelerated heartbeat wouldn’t fade away by itself. It kept on going for an hour and a half before I decided to walk to the hospital.
Yes, I walked myself to the hospital. I had built quite a resistance to the crazy heartbeat thing.
I walked into the ER and headed for the front desk to get my name on the waiting list.
“Hi, I’m currently in a tachycardia crisis. My heartbeat has been over 180 for more than an hour,” I said to the nurse.
She gave me “that look.” The same look the doctor had had. The “yeah, right” look. I can understand; I was 20 years-old and sporting blue hair.
I extended my arm for her to check my pulse right then and there. She paled as soon as her fingers hit my wrist. I knew she would; my blood pressure was so high I bet you could have taken my pulse on my shoulder.
Three seconds later, I was in triage, and another nurse took my blood pressure and heart rate, smiling all the while. I chatted with her and answered her questions, repeating quite a few times that I wasn’t on drugs (20 and blue hair, remember?) Finally, she led me to another room where she told me she’d help me slip into a hospital gown, but I declined her help. A fast beating heart didn’t keep me from dressing myself up.
Her eyes went back and forth between me and a phone as she slowly walked backwards towards it, her arms half-stretched in my direction. She quite obviously expected me to collapse.
“I need the doctor in rea,” she said after dialing whomever.
Hmm, so that’s what the “reanimation room*” looks like, I thought. A whole bunch of monitors, stacks of medicine and syringes, and other medical appliances surrounded the hospital bed, but –most importantly– there was a lot of space so people can run around.
Oh! And a defibrillator, of course.
By the time the nurse came back to me, I was in my gown. As soon as I laid down, the circus started. In the blink of an eye, I had plugs on my chest, oxygen pumped in my nose, a blood sample taken and an IV stuck in.
The moment all the plugs connected with my chest, the monitor went ballistic. The nurse had to look at it to mute it, and for a fraction of second, panic flashed across her face.
The monitor shut up, and the nurse smiled reassuringly. I could almost hear her think: “Smile. No sudden movement. Do not stress the patient.”
The doctor had a similar reaction when he walked in. The quick succession of “that look,” worry, and professional smile was a little funny. He questioned me about drugs and alcohol, reformulating the same questions a thousand times to try and catch me in a lie.
“Are you on drugs? Would you happen to be under the influence of narcotics? Is there any chance a strong opiate may have found its way into your veins?”
Again, I can totally understand that; 20, blue hair, crazy heart. We wouldn’t want to mix chemicals in my bloodstream now, would we?
Throughout the interrogation, nurses kept walking past the room and asking if help was needed. I learned later that they could read my heart rate on the computer at their station, hence the worry. I also got four additional plugs on my arms and calves for a few in-crisis eletrocardiograms.
“Ok. We need to calm your heart now,” the doctor informed me.
No shit! I thought, but sarcasm wouldn’t have been appropriate.
“I’m going to shoot you a medicine called adenosine. Your heart will stop beating for a few seconds. Then, it’ll start again at a normal rhythm.”
Yes, dear reader, your eyes haven’t fooled you. The right dosage of adenosine causes a temporary asystole, aka flatline.
After subtly making sure the defibrillator was within reach (in case my heart stubbornly refused to slow down at all), the doctor gave me the shot.
For four seconds, while fully conscious, I flatlined.
I learned later that before the doctor shot me, my heart was beating at 235 beats per minute. That’s a hell of a black metal rhythm, my friend. That’s so fast blood vessels usually start to pop (small and possibly big ones), causing all sorts of complication ranging from bruises to brain damage to deadly internal bleeding. I didn’t suffer from any of that, and I’ll forever be thankful for my luck/constitution/whatever.
But back to my story.
My heart basically went 235, 0, 100. Based on my 235 beats per minute, in those four seconds, I missed 16 beats before resuming at a more healthy 100 beats per minute. Trust me when I say that’s a taste of eternity. I don’t think there are words to describe how it feels to be conscious that your heart isn’t beating.
A week later, I was in class when my heart went crazy again. My trip to the ER was smoother that time around. I had been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (WPW), a heart condition that basically means I had two electrical currents in my heart instead of one. Since they knew what I suffered from, they gave me a softer medicine which gradually slowed my heart. One might also say they didn’t want to risk adenosine again; sometimes the heart of WPW patients doesn’t resume beating after using that type of medicine.
Additional fun fact –if I dare call it that– if I had called an ambulance while I was in my tachycardia crisis, there would have been nothing they could do. Their monitors would have yelled to jolt me with the defibrillator, but they aren’t supposed to do that on a conscious patient. My paramedic uncle said he would have freaked out and contemplated knocking me out. *laughs* I’m apparently an aberration.
On November 20th 2006, I woke up during my one-day heart surgery, which is another story in itself. Let’s just say that I’ve had a scar on my heart since then, but haven’t missed a beat again.
* “Reanimation room” is the straight translation from French. That’s our name for “trauma center.”