An anonymous message from a FHASS colleague…

I have decided that this should be anonymous because I wish to focus your attention on the message that I have to give, rather than on myself.  I am your colleague, and you may have spoken to me or interacted with me at several points in the past few years.

I need to give you a little background.  I have had a condition since adolescence which can cause me to become dizzy if I stand up too quickly.  In the fall of 2017, after a fainting spell, my condition was reassessed.  I was given a provisional diagnosis and several tests which failed to confirm the diagnosis.  In August of 2018, I was told that my condition had dramatically improved, that I could consider my condition to be almost normal and that my condition would be effectively managed with the medication that I was prescribed.

One morning, in November of last year, I woke to find that I was a little dizzy, a little sweaty and a little short of breath.  I had no chest pain.  When I arrived at work, I found that I had to stop to catch my breath when walking uphill every 40 to 50 feet; however, I appeared to be alright on level ground if I walked slowly.  It took me about 20 minutes to get from the parking lot to my classes.

By the afternoon, I had improved, but I went to Shopper’s Drug Mart to check my blood pressure and pulse.  My blood pressure was very high, but returned to normal levels after sitting for about 15 minutes.  My pulse seemed low.  I went to a Walk-in Clinic to have this checked.  The doctor at the Walk-in Clinic asked me some questions about my medical history.  After I told him about the tests that I had earlier in the year, he told me that I was at extremely low risk for a heart attack, and that my low pulse was consistent with the medications that had been prescribed to me.  He did not check my blood pressure or my pulse.  As I had felt unwell in the morning and was now feeling better, he assumed that I must have been experiencing a mild case of the flu.

For the remainder of the semester, I noticed that I would occasionally feel light headed in the morning before eating breakfast, and still seemed to be walking more slowly than usual.  I also seemed to be getting short of breath when carrying several books in my backpack and when climbing stairs.  The latter – due to my pre-existing condition – is normal for me.  I assumed that the backpack was putting too much weight on my shoulders and ribcage, and started carrying my books in a laptop bag with a shoulder strap instead.  I also noticed that my vision would “flicker” occasionally when I was exposed to very bright light.  I wrote this off to aging.  At the end of the semester, I drove to New York City and back to take my son to a concert.

During the holidays, a large boil formed on the back of my neck.  I went back to the Walk-in Clinic and was given the option of either trying antibiotics, which was not guaranteed to work, or going to the hospital and having the boil lanced, which was.  While being admitted to the emergency room, the nurse performing triage took my blood pressure and pulse as a matter of routine.  Based on the results of this preliminary test, the attending physician in the emergency room ordered an immediate electrocardiogram.  At this point, I felt completely fine, and was not experiencing any symptoms.

A normal pulse is between 60 – 120 beats per minute.  My pulse was 34 beats per minute.  Normal blood pressure is between 120/70 and 139/89.  Mine was ranging from normal when resting, to 189/85 when active.

The electrocardiogram confirmed that there was no electrical signal travelling from the upper chambers of my heart to the lower chambers of my heart in order to tell them when to contract.  My body had compensated for this by increasing my blood pressure to ensure that blood was still reaching my brain and my organs, and I was at high risk for loss of consciousness or for complete heart failure.

And I had been walking around in this condition for seven weeks.  During those seven weeks, my heart could have stopped at any moment.

I spent my birthday, last year, in the hospital, hooked up to monitors and leads which would (in theory – I was told) resuscitate me if my heart stopped.  On New Year’s Eve, a pacemaker was implanted.  Based on the positive performance of my heart following the procedure, I was released on New Year’s Day.

At the risk of being repetitious, I was walking around, teaching classes, grading assignments, grading examinations, posting final grades, and travelling to New York in an immediately life-threatening condition for seven weeks.  Effectively, I was running on “half a heart”.  Since that time, I have spoken to other people who have, similarly, thought that they were experiencing a minor complaint or condition (like a cold or the flu) only to find that the condition that they felt to be minor was immediately life-threatening.

If you are experiencing dizziness, shortness of breath, sweating, or general fatigue which doesn’t seem to have an obvious cause, get it checked.  Insist that your pulse and blood pressure be taken.  I was extremely lucky – if that boil hadn’t formed on the back of my neck, there is an excellent chance that I wouldn’t be telling you this story.

While in the hospital, my room-mate, a priest, gave his opinion that the boil was God’s way of getting me into the emergency room in order for my heart condition to be addressed.  I don’t have a better explanation, and if this encourages anyone who might be reading this to get a seemingly benign condition looked into, I hope that it will show my appreciation.