As 2019 comes to a close I am recovering again from an incident with my heart. Eleven years ago I had a major heart attack, with 100% blockage of the left coronary. They put four stents in at that time, which opened things up nicely and that has kept me going for more than a decade.
A little over a year ago I was hospitalized due to an irregular heartbeat. I was diagnosed with ischemic cardiomyopathy, which essentially means my heart is not pumping out as much blood as it should, and my percentage was pretty low. My drug regimen was reassessed and some prescriptions changed to try to improve that.
Two wees ago tomorrow I was at work, sitting at my desk, when suddenly I felt like I couldn’t breathe, felt dizzy and nauseous, and I literally thought I was going to collapse on the floor and die right there in the office. It was scarier than the heart attack because it was different than anything I had ever felt and I didn’t know what was happening.
It turned out to be ventricular tachycardia, which means that my heart was beating at an incredibly fast pace and could have killed me if it hadn’t been stopped. When I got to the emergency room my heart was firing at 240 beats a minute. Normal is 60-100. For me, it’s often in the 50s, so going at almost five times that was leaving my body in a very dangerous place. Once the doctors figured out what was happening they gave me some drugs to stop it. That didn’t work, so they doubled the dose. When that didn’t work, they put me out and shocked my heart (cardioversion). This effectively stops the heart from beating and resets it.
Later that day I was given a cardiac catheterization and in doing that, the doctors found new blockage and went ahead and put in three new stents to open up those passageways. Three days later I was in surgery to have an ICD (implantable cardioverter defibrillator) put in my chest. This is a combination defibrillator and pacemaker, with wires going from the ICD to both the top and bottom of my heart. The defibrillator will give me a shock if my heart starts racing like that again. The pacemaker will stimulate my heart if it is not beating fast enough. Together, they are designed to keep the heart functioning properly.
Unfortunately, I seem to have inherited my father’s genes when it comes to my heart. While my mother lived to be 92 years old, my father died of a massive heart attack at the young age of 41. If his heart attack were to have happened today rather than 1959, he may very well have survived. But medicine back in that era was nowhere near where it is today. So I am blessed to live in a time when medical procedures have advanced to a point where they can put miniature computers into your body that can regulate heart rhythm and that are able to communicate information to the doctors at the hospital through Wi-Fi. Still, it is unnerving to twice face the possibility of death because of my heart.
This time seemed a little scarier because it was so different, I am older, I had already had one big heart event, and because it just became a little clearer that my heart is not the strongest part of my body, even though it and the brain are the most essential. I could live as long as my mother, but it somehow seems much less likely now. If I look at the longevity of both of my parents and split the difference, I would only have five more years left, and that’s a bit chilling. So the idea of mortality, which I’ve always had an awareness and acceptance of, has a little stronger pull now.
Still, of course, one never knows. With the ICD, drugs, and the miracles of modern medicine, I could outlive my mother, which would mean that I still have about a third of my life left. Or my heart could give out tomorrow despite the advances in science. I can’t know and I can’t worry about it. What I do have control over is how I react to it all. It doesn’t do any good to live in fear. At the same time, having an awareness of mortality can keep one focused on the present, on the here and now, and what a person can do in this moment on this day. I have much work yet to do in this life. I will get that work done, moment by moment, and my heart will revel while it can.