As someone who both writes and holds down a fairly mundane day job, I tend not to have very many adventures here in Victoria BC. Life is mostly routine with little real drama worth recounting. However, a few weeks ago I had a little medical discumbuggerance which threatened to upset a number of apple carts. My own especially. Let me expound.
My wife frequently complains about my snoring. It’s been costing both of us sleep. So, after considerable trial and error I worked out that the problem was catarrh based. During the hours of sleep, mucus was collecting at the back of my throat thus causing a partial blockage resulting in a sound like someone sawing a depressed camel in half. So just before Christmas I elected to try an extra strength sinus medicine to dry up the offending excess secretions and hopefully let the household get a good nights repose. The first night went reasonably well, I took the maximum dose and the morning consensus was that we’d all slept the better for it, so around eleven on the Wednesday evening before Christmas I popped another two of these over-the-counter nostrums and decided to stay up writing until two to let Angie take a run up at a decent nights repose.
At around two in the morning my heart began to pound uncontrollably. Just like a regular heartbeat but impossibly fast. Boom-boom-boom-boom. My body’s heretofore reliable muscle pump felt like it was trying to jackhammer out of my chest. Even at rest I couldn’t find a steady pulse, just my heartbeat thundering in my ears, my chest and fingers reverberating.
I went into the main bedroom. The light was on. Angie was awake and reading. So much for letting her get some sleep without me. “Hon. I’m not feeling so good.” I said. Truth be told I felt bloody awful. Light headed, unsteady and with an urgent need to call an ambulance. However, a quick run down a mental check list came up with no symptoms that might indicate a full-fledged heart attack. No pain, no clamminess or tightness in the chest. Just a super fast hammering inside my rib cage and the weird feeling that my head was going to float away.
Angie got up and joined me in the front room, checking my temperature and pulse as we sat on the couch. By now it was two thirty in the morning. “Emergency?” She queried.
“Please.” I said.
I managed to pull on some clothes and stagger into the garage and thus the car. Angie hopped into the drivers seat and we took off into the early hours of a damp December night, me failing to bite my tongue as she put her foot down, pushing hard through suburban bends, nipping artfully through several tail end amber lights. As if my heart wasn’t hammering hard enough beforehand it was pounding even harder when we reached Victoria Hospital emergency. Angie decanted me at the door and I wobbled through the doors to the front desk. I managed to hand over my BC care card and burble something about having a fast heartbeat before slumping into a chair at front desk. A ponytailed girl in dark blue scrubs checked my heart rate and blood pressure. “Can we get a wheelchair for this gentleman?” She asked a colleague. By this time my vision was greying around the edges and I was too tired to walk down to the treatment area. Fortunately I was the only sick person in the emergency waiting room that night, so the road to treatment was short and timely.
“Thanks. I’m not sure I can walk. I’m a bit lightheaded.”
“With a heart rate of over two hundred I’d be light headed.” Someone, I’m not sure who, commented as I was wheeled into the very beige treatment area. I recall my head wobbling a little on my shoulders and commenting that my spatial sense was very disturbed. The simple act of being pushed around a corner in a wheelchair made me feel very uncomfortable bordering on nauseous.
A male nurse named Fraser, or was it Frasier? My normally accurate memory skips a groove every time I try and recall certain details. All I remember of him is an image of a jocund, portly young man with black frame glasses, short dark hair and jawline beard. He handed me one of those draughty hospital gowns and allowed me the dignity of changing behind curtains. Jeans and jacket draped over a cabinet I slumped onto one of those all singing, all dancing hospital beds that act as support, occasional operating table and sometime hearse.
One thing I noticed was a distinct distortion of my colour perception. Everything but the nurses and doctors scrubs seemed beige. Curtains, walls everything. Even if they were pastel shades of light blue or green. Which left me with an overwhelming impression of Victoria General Hospital’s curtain draped ER as an overall beigeness. I might have been mistaken but even the defibrillator-laden bright red crash cart parked at my beds foot appeared somehow pastel and muted. All I could do was lie back and let the medical staff get on with their jobs. Plugging leads into a heart monitor, taking various samples for testing. Ripping off bits of my chest hair when they had to move the electrodes for a better signal.
When properly wired up to a monitor I recall someone trying to find a vein in my left arm to stick in a needle and failing. Which in my semi-stupor struck me as odd as I used to be a blood donor and never had a problem with hidden veins before. A week later there was still a three inch long oval bruise on my left forearm punctuated with at least half a dozen bright red needle marks.
Then there was the annoying bleeping of the heart monitor alarm. My natural breathing rate is about five or six breaths a minute when the monitor alarm default was nine. Sometimes if I’m concentrating hard I’ll stop breathing for at least half a minute at a time. Some people stick their tongues out, others frown, I hold my breath. It’s an old habit from when I used to meditate a lot. Which of course set off the alarm every time I tried to focus on what people were saying.
Angie arrived, I’m not sure exactly when, after parking the car and chatted to the male nurse, filling in medical history details I’d omitted in my foggy mental state. She was briefly quizzed on why we hadn’t called 911, but that’s one of those questions you never have a decent answer for because you’re too caught up in the moment. Our attitude was, why call an ambulance when you can still walk?
At some stage the collector of blood samples switched to my right arm where they actually struck oil. I was also told to try various things like holding my breath and clenching my belly, which seemed to help. I believe it’s called the Varsalva manoeuvre or some such. After five minutes of this the pounding eased and I felt my booming heart gradually slow to a more leisurely eighty beats per minute and my hands stopped vibrating. To the point where I could actually use one of those cardboard urine collection bottles without spilling any. For some reason I really needed to relieve myself and couldn’t have hung on to it much longer.
What I do remember precisely is offhandedly wondering whether I was going to die that night. For some reason the thought did not worry me overmuch. At least I don’t remember feeling frightened. My heart hadn’t failed at the peak of the attack when I’d almost gone into full defibrillation, so now things were calming down I felt able to relax. I reasoned that the worst hadn’t happened by now, so it probably wasn’t going to. Panic over.
After my heartbeat steadied I dozed until four thirty despite the comings and goings of staff and one loudly complaining woman with a sand-rasp voice. At which point a slight bespectacled man with short sandy hair appeared at my bedside and introduced himself as a heart surgeon. He told me my bloods were all within normal range and we could go home. I was also quizzed about medication and confessed to maxing two doses of extra strength sinus medicine. With this revelation it was generally agreed a lack of decent regular sleep plus the medication had unbalanced my electrolytes, to the point where my cardiac electrical system literally shorted out, which was the cause of my ultra fast heartbeat. The medical name for my condition was Paroxysmal Supraventricular Tachycardia. Which is usually first noticed in much younger people. Highly unpleasant and not to be recommended, but watch the meds and get more sleep in future. At least that was what I remember being told.
After that advice I dressed, still a little unsteadily, and we walked out into the damp darkness of the early morning, arriving home just after five. Angie and I went to bed but all we could do was doze fitfully for another three hours, our little bit of hospital drama at an end.
As anyone with the slightest imagination might attest, the whole experience made for a rather thoughtful, sober and reflective festive season.
It’s a curious thing, this not-dying. Very curious indeed.