This post appeared in two parts on September 8 & 20, 2013.
The first night in a hotel room in Estoril, Portugal, my heart, flipping about in my chest, jolted me awake. Thump. Thump. Thump. Silence. Then a rush of horses’ hooves clopped on my ribs. Trying to ignore my heart’s gymnastics, I tried to go back to sleep but the Mariachi band playing under my ribs demanded my attention. Pressing my fingers into my wrist, I palpated the same irregular rhythm. Besides a touch of anxiety, I felt fine. No chest pain, no shortness of breath, no dizziness, no nausea. Then my bladder upstaged my clinical observations. Damn.
Slowly, I rose and sat on the side of the bed, careful not to disturb my husband who slept beside me. I waited to pass out. 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, jet lag eased me into slumber.
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.
I remembered 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 how advanced medical practice was 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, “I am having some a-fib. It’s nothing serious and I suspect it’ll end on its own. I just want you to know, in case I pass out, get an ambulance and tell the medical folks what’s wrong with me.” I made eye contact. “A-fib, got it?” My husband of forty years knew better than to question me, and nodded. I figured he was happy to put off a deviation in our itinerary—his controlled persona would be spared a chaotic scene.
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 slipped down in my seat and put my fingers to my neck, checking my carotid pulse. The irregular rhythm ticked off around one hundred beats per minute. No too rapid to worry me—yet.
After a couple of hours, the light blue sky became cloudless as we headed into thinning 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 look inviting. And very far away.
The bus turned into an empty parking lot. We arrived before the Japanese 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. My heart had stopped. No, it just felt that way with the prancing 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.
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.”
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 and the monitor gave off a high-pitched sound and began taping. As instructed, I lay still. When the whining stopped, I stumbled out of the bedroom 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 didn’t tell me to go directly to the hospital, as happened with my friend, Norm, after his first submittal. He was sent to the emergency room immediately. A pacemaker was implanted in his chest the next day.
I reassured my husband, who woke up during the taping and trailed 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 fear of the monitor beeping at inappropriate times during the day. Or most of all, the constant state of 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 that’s not life threatening. 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.