When your heart stops

What’s happening to me?
I said something like that as I was moving myself from a kitchen stool to the kitchen floor. The ground was disintegrating, while its fragments were rising up to swallow me into a gray-green aura.. I shouldn’t stay here on this stool, I told myself. I should get to the floor because I’m going to pass out.

So, I pulled myself off the stool, moved a few feet and quietly sank to the floor with my body propped against the dishwasher. That’s the last thing I remember until my husband was bending over me, holding up my left shoulder so I wouldn’t topple over.

What’s wrong? What happened? I think he asked. I asked the same thing. I was looking up at his face. Then I heard my mother’ voice next to me. They were coming into focus.

A minute or so earlier, I was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the Sunday newspapers: the latest on the Occupy protests across the country, another scandal in the SF mayoral election, the Venice masters exhibit coming to the De Young.

Before I passed out, I didn’t feel pain or light-headedness. There was just the gray-green awareness of dread and warning.

That was Sunday around noon. Over the next six or seven hours, there would be six more such episodes in John Muir Medical Center’s Emergency Room and then in the cardiac care unit.
Each time, I knew that the loss of consciousness—syncope, as it is known in medical termswas coming, and I could call out to my husband or to the nurse, “It’s coming.”

A sense of deja vous accompanied the aura. It seemed as if somehow I had been in this situation before, in this gray-green place. Calling out for help. For just a millisecond at most, figures would flash across my brain. They seemed to be familiar people in familiar places. But they were shadowy.

Maybe this is what is meant by one’s life passing before one’s eyes. But for me, I saw no bright welcoming light. Just a glimpse into a place I really didn’t want to go.

During Episode No. 3 in the emergency room, the doctor announced “she’s asystole.” He had the friendly, handsome face of a doctor in TV medical dramas. From TV medical dramas, I knew that “asystole” means something pretty dramatic.

Sudden cardiac arrest that occurs when the heart develops an arrhythmia that causes it to stop beating. … Cardiac standstill with no cardiac output; it eventually occurs in all dying patients.

My husband says the green number on the black screen of the heart monitor fell from 60something to below 50, and then to zero.

He said it stayed zero for five or 10 seconds; the longest five or 10 seconds in his life. The nurses and technicians with the red crash cart came rushing in.

During each of the episodes, my heart fortunately started up again, though slowly. Twenty. Twenty, Twenty-three. It took about a minute before my heart reached a normal pace — for me anywhere from the low 60s to the low 70s..

I’m 48 years old and have always been confident of my good, sturdy health. That’s what checkups with doctors or at hospitals always told me: I had a strong heart, strong lungs, healthy weight, no medical problems. I liked to exercise, daily if possible.

And, then on Sunday, just before noon, I started to faint, and it would lead to a new milestone in life and identity. I had become a cardiac patient; I now had a heart condition.

The weekend had started with one of those little miracles. We welcomed a new kitten into our family. My son and a group of his friends arrived home at about 5 p.m. Friday. Five middle school boys walked into the house in a quiet, purposeful way. My immediate thought was, OK, we suddenly have a some mouths to feed.

My son followed me into the kitchen, and I noticed he was holding something against his chest. It was very small and golden.
“Mom,” he said with the most serious face. “We found her in Alma Park. A lady there said she was in a litter of strays.” She was a little tabby kitten, her face burrowing into his shirt.

“Mom,” he said. “I want to keep her.”

And, I knew, yeah, we were going to keep her.

She looked so small. I wondered if we would need to feed her from a bottle. My only worry was how well our 13-year-old cat Fluffy would adjust to having to share some of her realm.

“You’re in love,” I told my son. And he said, “Yeah.”

I had immediately fallen in love, too. My son, his friends and I took her down to Pet Food Express to buy some kitten formula. We learned from the clerk that she was probably 5 to 7 weeks old.

My son wanted to name her something from the Greek myths. After some quick Wikipedia searches, he announced his choice: “Pandora.” The first woman, he said. The one who, according to some interpretations, unleashed evil into the world by opening her “box.” But my son also said the Pandora of mythology was known for her curiosity, and his new little cat seemed curious.

On Sunday morning, I went to the gym and did my hour on the elliptical. I sensed nothing amiss. Then I went to meet a friend for coffee. I felt cheerful and energetic. I thought I’d stop at Trader Joe’s and pick up ingredients for dinner. And I’d go to the famers market.

But all I really wanted to was go home and see Pandora. The kitten was living up to her name. She was curious. She had no hesitancy about approaching people or about sliding down off the couch to explore. She was making herself at home, and our other cat was not freaking out. Pandora also was cuddly and affectionate. She liked to curl up in a ball in our laps and be petted and scratched. She’d open her little mouth and yawn, stretch out her white paws, and look up at us with happy blue eyes.

I saw her bright blue eyes as I lay in my bed in the cardiac unit on Sunday afternoon, in between episodes. I started to cry, because I wanted to get home and protect and love that kitten, and because I was overwhelmed with this rapid turn-around in my reality.

I was in the hospital, with a mysterious heart ailment. My heart was doing this thing in which it suddenly stopped beating. With just a one-or two-second warning, I was losing consciousness, along with the awareness of my surroundings and of myself.

But at least my heart was going haywire while I was in the hospital, where I was hooked up to monitors and a crash cart was just outside my door. For my first episode, I could have been at the famers market and collapsed in the middle of Locust Street.

For the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh times, the monitors were recording all the vitals in my cardiac crisis, including heart rate and blood pressure. The eyewitness accounts coupled with the data on my vitals would give the cardiologists valuable information to diagnose my new condition and recommend a course of action.

But the course of action would mean staying overnight or longer.

No going home to Pandora.

4 thoughts on “When your heart stops

  1. ok, so that leaves us hanging. . .

    you are obviously able to post on the blog, so that's a good sign –

    I wish you speedy healing!


  2. OH EM GEE. I hope you feel better soon. Nothing worse than not knowing what the heck is going on.

    Interestingly enough, my mother had the same type of thing and it turned out she had a bladder infection. The body does weird things.

    Take care!


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