Friday, April 29, 2011

The Dancing Heart

The screaming episode of a-fib I had last night reminded me of my promise to write more about my experience with this condition in case someone is looking for more information on others experience with this condition. A couple of things I've learned living with paroxysmal (on and off) a-fib for several years and conversing with others who have a-fib.
  1. A-fib presents itself with a unique set of symptoms. Some have it and don't know it until their doctor tells them. Some are highly symptomatic when in a-fib. Some people, myself included, have symptoms that vary from mild to extreme.
  2. Better eating habits, getting more sleep and good quality sleep, and avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and cold medicines does seem to reduce the number and intensity of a-fib episodes.
So what does a-fib feel like?

I've been in the hospital twice now on an EKG machine with the doctor telling me I'm in a-fib. If they hadn't told me, I wouldn't have known. In both of these cases I was confined to bed and medicated heavily enough that my heart rate was controlled, so it stayed in a 'normal' range of less than 100 beats per minute. So sometimes it feels like nothing at all.

I should mention here that I almost constantly have something called PVC's, which are not a-fib but seem to go hand in hand with afib. These are benign (so the doctor says) but they can drive you absolutely insane until you get used to them. I have about 4000 a day, and have had them since 2005, so I guess I'm used to them for the most part now. If you ever took a CPR class, you may recall that you were told to count one & two & three & four & five... when performing CPR. Well, with PVCs imagine your heart beating along one & two & three......and then there's this pause, sometimes long enough that you feel like holding your breath to make sure you feel if your heart does beat again. And then along come four, but it isn't a normal beat. No, it is a super beat that slams so hard that sometimes you feel it is lifting you right out of the bed. If you are not extremely overweight, you can actually see that beat pop out of your chest sometimes. Needless to say, it makes relaxation a challenge.

By far the worst; however, is being here at home or in the hospital in what I call 'full-blown a-fib.' This typically occurs at night, sometimes before I go to sleep, other times waking me from a sound sleep. At first it feels like my heart is playing on the monkey bars. Remember that bar you hold on to and the flip around? Well, it feels like my heart is doing pull ups on that bar, and then every few beats it decides to turn a flip - whee! Except it isn't as thrilling to have my heart do that inside my chest as it is to have my body turn that flip. Eventually that flip changes to an irregular heart rhythm. No more one & two & three. It's like a drunken sailor is staggering around inside my chest.

Except that no drunken sailor could stagger so fast. When it really winds up, my actual pulse rate will soar up over 100 beats per minute. At about 180, I get shortness of breath and lightheaded. I use some basic breathing exercises to bring my rate down to where I can breathe again. But then it pops back up again, so time for more breathing exercises. Repeat, over and over again, until either the rate stabilizes at a low enough point that I can go to sleep; or I convert back to normal rhythm; or I decide it's time for a trip to the ER. Trips to the ER are thankfully rare, and I'll talk about why in a future post.

Oh, and once I hit that magical rate of 180 or so, another symptom develops. Some of my friends call it the 'big pee.' Yes, just at the time that my body needs me to be still and relax to lower my heart rate -- I start wearing a trail in the floor going back and forth to the little girl's room. If I hit that point, I know it's a really bad a-fib episode and I'm going to feel like h*&% the next day. Kind of like I feel right now.

The next day, my blood pressure is typically low. So I'm too tired to do anything more strenuous than operate the DVR. Sometimes I even watch the commercials because the effort to fast forward just isn't worth it. I have to psyche myself up to stand in the shower for five minutes. Trips up the single flight of stairs in our house require a break in the middle. I often get so lightheaded that I have to elevate my feet to clear the rushing in my head.

Sometimes after an a-fib episode, if I try to do normal type activities, I have a near-faint, which is an awful feeling. If you haven't had a near-faint before, for me it goes like this. First, my head starts feeling extremely full. I get very warm and slightly nauseous. Sometimes if I can get to a sitting position fast enough, it ends there. If not, then my vision starts narrowing. It's like someone is slowly covering my eyes from the outer perimeter inward, until I can only see a tiny little tunnel. And my lips get numb - yep, worse than the best Novocain the dentist can dish out. By this time my feet better be getting elevated above my heart, or I'm probably going all the way out. Lucky for me there's been someone around to help with the feet the two times it's gone this far.

So this is what it feels like to live with a-fib in my sample of one - me. Other describe different symptoms. Some choose to head to the ER at the first sign, others refuse to go to the ER at all. Well-intentioned doctors often tell us that we have anxiety we need to deal with (well duh, after what I've just described wouldn't you be a bit anxious?) or that it won't kill us, never mind the elevated stroke risk. They ignore the impact of feeling 70 when you're 45, the fear of the next episode that ruins your plans for the day, and medications that are sometimes worse than the disease.

So what are the options for an a-fib sufferer - that's up next.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

From the Heart

I admit it - I'm a superficial blogger. I've watched with both admiration and consternation as my blogger friends offer intimate glimpses into their lives. Sometimes I've thought about sharing more intimate details, but I'm always held back by the "what ifs." Today's topic is one of those: "what if someday I'm job hunting, and my future employer finds this, and decides I'm too high risk to hire?"

No, this isn't about some wild crime spree or deviant behavior. It's about something potentially worse in an employer's (or their insurer's) mind - health. Yet I know that this story needs to be told, because there are others out there with similar circumstances, who need to hear they aren't alone.

You might recall my prior heart story. A really brief synopsis for those of you who don't want to go back to read it - I had some strange symptoms, for a period of five years or more these were diagnosed and treated as anxiety, turned out I had a hole in my heart.

Foremost among my strange symptoms was a racing, irregular heartbeat that most often occurred around 2AM, often waking me from a sound sleep. My heart rate was often over 150 (this is while lying in bed) and it felt like a psychotic, tap dancing Tasmanian Devil with really bad rhythm was inside my chest.

I now know that this was atrial fibrillation (A-fib for short). If you want more information on this condition, I highly recommend this wonderful website. If you don't, here's the short version: A-fib is the most common abnormal heart rhythm. The only for-sure way to diagnose it is with an EKG. The older you get, the greater your chances of having a-fib. It impacts your quality of life, and it increases your risk of stroke. You can 'have' a-fib without having a heart defect or any other form of heart disease.

I have paroxysmal (some of the time) A-fib. This A-fib can be elusive and rarely seems to occur when there happens to be an EKG machine nearby. But if you have a racing heart for no reason, and the rhythm is irregular, it might be a-fib. To find it, doctor's first have to test for it.

If you are a younger woman, in my experience there is a good chance of getting an anxiety, panic attack, depression, or hormonal disturbance diagnosis without any testing when you complain of a racing, irregular heartbeat. A-fib certainly causes anxiety, and it can also cause depression, and it can be related to hormonal imbalances. In some people anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications can lessen the frequency of a-fib episodes; thus appearing to support the depression/anxiety diagnosis.

A Holter monitor is a non-invasive, relatively inexpensive test. While many report that their symptoms seem to perversely disappear every time they wear a Holter, it does provide successful diagnosis for others. It seems to me a Holter should be an obvious test choice when someone is complaining of a racing heart and irregular rhythm, despite their age or gender.

Why am I telling you this? Because in my case, earlier diagnosis might have led to less enlargement of my atria, and therefore less predisposition to continuing a-fib. Yes, even though my heart defect has been repaired, I still have the a-fib.

More on what it feels like to live with a-fib next post.....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Lot About A Little

"Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." I'm not sure who said that, but ain't it the truth. Life has certainly been happening to me this year. Here are a few random thoughts about the year 2010.

The human body can endure a lot of self-inflicted abuse like stress, bad eating habits, lack of exercise, and too little sleep. It eventually catches up with you. Get out from in front of the computer (after you finish reading this, or course) and stretch, each some fresh fruits or veggies, take a walk, breathe deeply. You'll be glad you did.

You can spend a ridiculous amount of money going to the top of the tallest building in North America and stepping out into a box that looks like you are standing in mid-air. But your child will have more fun sitting in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel on Michigan Avenue in Chicago learning about acoustics. Yes, in this lobby you can sit in chairs across the lobby (say 100 yards at least) from each other, talk in a low volume voice, and carry on a conversation with the person across they way from you. At no charge, no less.

For all my gambling friends, I have a new pool for you to join. You see, every time Kilowatt goes out of town, something weird happens. Last weekend was the best one yet - he left on Friday night. At 2AM Saturday morning a drunk driver hit a utility pole down the road, and out goes the power. When the power goes out, we have all these things that beep. Loudly. I finally manage to doze off around 4AM. At 4:30, the power comes back on. Cue the beeps. Oh well, at least I should sleep well on Saturday night, right?

Saturday night arrives -- Diva and I are watching a movie when we hear a roaring sound. Since we live in the flight path for the airport, I thought it was just a really big plane. But it didn't get any closer, and the house started shaking. Yes, it was an earthquake. Now NH doesn't get many earthquakes, so what are the chances that the first one I've felt in the 25 years I've lived here would happen while Kilowatt is out of town? Yep, good gambling odds for the house.

So what's next? We've had floods and windstorms. I'm thinking meteors.... Would you like a warning the next time he goes out of town?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Live, from New Hampshire, it's Wild!

I have returned! Yes, I survived yet another semester of doctoral study. I'll have a nice update post someday, maybe. But in the meantime our local paper has had news that I just had to share...

Only in New Hampshire...:
Today, a 'teenaged' moose caused one of the largest high schools in the state to be on a semi-lock down. Yep, teen moose have the same problem as teen humans - the raging hormones make them think in a less than rational manner.

But this isn't all the 'wild' news of the week. Just two days ago we had a similar incident a bit farther south - but this time it was a bear. Since I had two 'teenaged' bears wander through my yard earlier this year (and take down my bird feeder) I can certainly understand why we might not want to have kids near them.

This is why I love this state!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Happy Girl!

Diva has been on a Destination Imagination team since 2nd grade, so yesterday was her 5th competition. For the last three years (since they entered the competitive level) her team has just missed progressing to the state tournament. We've dried our fair share of tears each year as the winners are announced, and twice our team has finished 3rd when only two teams move forward.
This year they picked the most popular challenge, which is both good and bad. Good because with nine teams competing in their division, the top three are moving forward. Bad because the odds weren't quite as good this year as last year with a smaller field.

When two very impressive teams took 4th & 5th place, we were a bit worried. Did we finish out of the top 5? Then came the floor drumroll - and Diva's team once again took 3rd - which this time earned them a trip to the state tournament!

This photo says it all:

Friday, March 12, 2010

O Time, Time, wherefore art thou time?

Something has been stolen from my house. The clever thief snuck in and took it while I was surfing the Internet or something. Because it cannot possibly already be the middle of March, and it can't be Friday yet.

This week was my spring break - no classes to prep for, no 3 hour commutes, just time to catch up on everything I've fallen behind on since December. Last Saturday morning I joyously prepared my to do list for the week, knowing I'd get to mark a lot off of it. Yes, by the time break was over I'd be savoring the feeling of accomplishment that comes with seeing all those items with lines through them. I had 15 items on that list - and 9 days to get them done.

Granted, three of them involved writing 15 page papers. Another is a 40 hour statistics exercise. So these aren't necessarily simple items. But surely at least a couple will get crossed off....

And now it's Friday. Tonight Diva has ice practice for 2 hours. Tomorrow is the Destination Imagination marathon (no, it's not that kind of marathon, it's the kind where you arrive for your kid's activity at 7AM and don't get to leave until 8PM). Sunday chalk us up for 5 hours at the rink. So what's done now is pretty much what's going to get done.

I have two items crossed off my list, but one of them, laundry, has made a mysterious reappearance. That thief who took my time left behind dirty clothes. And to add insult to injury, this weekend we lose an hour - yep - while springing forward 1AM - 2AM just disappears....

So if you see that time thief - stop him - and get my time back. Spring break can't already be over!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Add these to your shopping list....

Things have been quite crazy around here, and I just haven't been able to find time to blog. Until this weekend, when things screeched to a crashing halt. It all started with a really ugly weather forecast Thursday night. High winds, driving rain -- not exactly normal for New England in February. A foot of snow would be normal... Because it was school vacation week, Diva and I were up late watching the Olympics when the storm started. As the first of many 50+ mph wind gusts came through, it occurred to me that perhaps sitting in our family room with windows on three sides and big trees nearby might not be the best idea. So we moved into the main part of the house to read.

A little before midnight I heard the first crash. A peak out the windows showed something might be on fire, but it was hard to tell. The wind was blowing so hard it sounded like the siding was being pulled off the house - we later discovered it was our empty recycling bin that had been pushed about 10 feet, sideways, and into the side of the house. Then came the big flash of light, followed by a loud crash, and darkness.

Kilowatt grabbed an industrial strength flashlight (where does he buy this stuff?) and stepped out onto the front porch. Lying across the middle of the street were the power lines that service our house. I dutifully called to report the downed power lines blocking the roadway. We tried to get some sleep with the constant wind gusts. At 3AM the chainsaws started - turns out there was also a tree blocking the road that the flashlight couldn't quite illuminate. Here's the view the next morning:

The trees took out our power lines, and our cable too. We have a generator, so losing the cable (broadband Internet access) was actually worse than losing electricity! At lunch we headed out in search of warm food and free WiFi. We noticed a lot of trees uprooted just like this one in our neighbor's yard:

After this, I realized I need to add a few items to my shopping list for winter weather survival:
1) Generac generator - no electricity - make your own
2) 5 gallon gas cans - because you have to have something to run that generator
3) Weber grill - because that generator won't run a stove or microwave AND your furnace.
4) Poland Springs bottled water - unless you are lucky enough to be on city water (we are!)
5) Smartphone - so when your cable goes out, you can still get news from Twitter
6) Small TV set, DVD player, and DVD's - so you can respond to "Mom, I'm bored..."

At the moment, cable is back, and we are running on hour 70 of so of generator power. But here's the view outside my front door:

So maybe we won't hit hour 80!