This was published in September 2018 in The Olli Writers Group Anthology
On our first night in a hotel room in Estoril, Portugal, the thumping in my chest jolted me awake. Still groggy from jet lag, I tried to go back to sleep but the pounding demanded attention. I pressed my hand over my heart, feeling what seemed like a bird batting its wings to escape my ribcage.
Besides a touch of anxiety, I felt fine. No chest pain, no shortness of breath, no dizziness, no nausea. Then my bladder chimed in, upstaging my clinical observations.
Slowly, I rose and sat on the side of the bed, careful not to disturb my husband who was asleep beside me. Thinking I might pass out, I sat quietly waiting to topple. When that didn’t happen, I shuffled in the dark, feeling my way along the wall, to the tiny bathroom.
Successfully back in bed without tripping, falling, or fainting, I couldn’t help but let the jet lag overtake any further analysis.
The next morning, I awoke to the same sensation in my chest. More alert than the night before, I diagnosed the uneven heartbeat as atrial fibrillation. A geriatric nurse practitioner until my retirement three years ago, I had treated many patients with this condition—its occurrence increases with age. A fact I couldn’t ignore. A-Fib, as it’s called, isn’t life threatening and often stops on its own.
I remembered that the day before, as my husband and I explored the neighborhood around the hotel, we had walked past a medical clinic. Through the large glass window, I saw several people sitting in a waiting room, some reading magazines, not unlike our clinics back home. I had no desire to seek help there. I didn’t speak the language, and who knew about medical practice in Portugal? Besides, I was counting on this event ending soon.
Getting ready for the day’s adventure, my husband slipped a sweater over his head as I laced my shoes. “By the way,” I said, trying to sound causal, “I’m having a little irregular heart beat. It’s nothing serious and I suspect it’ll end on its own. I just want you to know, that if by chance I pass out, get the tour director to call an ambulance and tell the medical folks what’s wrong with me—A-Fib.” Before my husband could become worried, I added, “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
My husband of forty years trusted me, the knowledgeable nurse, to accurately assess my situation, and nodded. I figured he would be happy to be spared an interruption in our itinerary.
We rode the elevator down to the lobby, queued up with our tour group, and boarded the bus to Cabo de Roca. I grabbed a window seat. The vibrant, coastal city gave way to dry grasses clinging to rocky cliffs. I slid down in my seat and discretely put my fingers to my neck, checking my carotid pulse. The irregular rhythm ticked off around one hundred beats per minute. Not too rapid to worry me—yet.
After a couple of hours, the light blue sky became cloudless as we ascended into the thinning mountain air. Would the high altitude affect the rhythm of my heart? Would my pulse become so erratic that my blood stagnated, forming a clot that would migrate to my brain and spawn a stroke? My husband remained deep in his book. Or was he consciously ignoring me? The medical clinic near the hotel began to seem inviting, but very far away.
The bus turned into an empty parking lot. We arrived before other tourists. My husband was the only one who headed over to the one-story building that stood at the far end of the lot where one could obtain, for five euros, a certificate validating that one had stood at the westernmost point of continental Europe. The others headed to the bathrooms or the gift shop.
I stepped off the bus last. I felt something strange. Or, rather, I felt nothing. Had my heart stopped? No, it just felt that way with the fluttering finally gone. My chest was silent. My pulse was regular. The air smelled cool and crisp. Released from potential calamity, I dashed off to find my husband. No further health alarms marred the remainder of the trip.
When we returned to the States, my internist insisted I wear an Event Monitor: electrodes attached to my chest at one end, and at the other end to a plastic box that would hang around my neck for a month. When I noted any flip-flops from my heart, I was to depress the start button and the monitor would record the “event.”
One night during the first week, after I wrestled with the monitor to find a comfortable position in bed, I settled into sleep. My heart, booming loudly in my ears, jarred me awake. I pressed the record button. The monitor gave off a high-pitched sound and began taping. As instructed, I lay still. When the whining stopped, I stumbled into the kitchen to call the toll-free phone number.
The nurse talked me though the process of sending the recording across the phone lines. I hung up, relieved that she hadn’t told me to go directly to the hospital, as had happened with my friend, Norm, after his first submittal. “Get to the emergency room, NOW,” the nurse told him. The next day, a cardiologist installed a pacemaker in his chest.
I reassured my husband, who woke up during the taping and rushed after me, concern covering his face. We ambled back to bed—him to sleep and me to await any further malfunctioning of my heart.
Three weeks later, I mailed the monitor, wire, attachments, and unused batteries back to the company. I wouldn’t miss the nightly struggle to sleep with a rigid box digging into my ribs. Or the monitor’s beeping at inappropriate times during the day. Or most of all, the constant surveillance for any twitch in my chest.
The only two episodes I had during the month were not atrial fibrillation but sinus tachycardia: a regular, rapid heart rate, usually benign. Wearing the monitor for a month seemed too much of an inconvenience for such a paltry yield.
No doubt there will be other assaults to my aging body, mildly annoying or life threatening. The trick is to know the difference: whether to stay back and seek medical care or take a chance and get on the bus.