There are runs where you feel invincible. Your legs spin as if attached to a wheel. Your feet feel as if they’re barely touching the ground. Every part of your body is working together in perfect harmony and unison; arms, torso, legs, lungs, heart.
Until they’re not.
Your legs are like wooden posts, your breath is labored, your heart races, but you can’t keep up with it. The synchronism that suffused your body moments ago is 50 feet behind you, gasping for breath. You slow down and let it catch up, but a few minutes later it falls back again, lying in the middle of the street like a broken timing belt.
Atrial fibrillation is what it is. “A. fib.” for short. My right atrium, the upper chamber of my heart, is beating at least three times faster than the lower chamber, the ventricle. Where I usually have a resting heart rate of under 50, it’s now 129 when I’m “in fibrillation.” Actually, I’m in flutter because it’s beating fast at a steady rate. Fibrillation is uneven and sporadic. Like your sex life at a certain age.
So that was the first sign. The second sign was the lightheaded and dizziness the would overwhelm me when sitting at a desk or table and was only relieved with a glass of cold water and a brisk walk. It’s similar to the wooziness that you might get if you stand up too fast, except that it only happened when I was sitting down. Standing up actually made it better. So did the water. Cold water. I thought drinking the water was what helped me cut back on caffeine, but now I think my body was cutting back on caffeine on it’s own and telling me to drink more water. I wonder if the caffeine masked the a fib? I’ll ask the doctor.
That was the third thing. “Your heart just skipped a beat,” my endo said. “Did you notice?” I hadn’t. “Better have the checked out,” she said.
“You heart just skipped a beat,” my internist said. “Did you notice?” I hadn’t. So we had the EKG and a call to set up the cardiology appointment and a prescription for a beta blocker (metaprolol) to slow down my heart.
It turns out I’d seen the cardiologist before a few years ago when I had complained of shortness of breath after the L.A. Marathon. But everything checked out then. It didn’t check out now because I was still in flutter. It’s seems to be chronic. It’s common, it’s treatable, it’s good we caught it, we can do this procedure, we can do that procedure, it could come back, do nothing you could throw an embolism, here’s some blood thinner, read this, get your blood checked every week, we’ll talk . . .
Yeah. But can I still go for a run?
Yes. A run.
Yeah. Okay. But take it easy.
When you reach a certain age you expect to slow down, but you don’t expect to have to come to a gasping halt. When you’re awarded the TuDiabetes 2009 Active Lifestyle Fan you are struck by the irony of being diagnosed the very next day with atrial fibrillation. It’s like accepting an award for Best Dressed and finding out when you take the stage that your fly is open. What’s your biggest fear? That you’ll never run again and you’ll have to give back the award.
Well, I did run again. I don’t run fast, but I never did. A shorter stride and quicker steps seem to keep things under control, along with the medication, of course. I expect it to strike at any moment: the shortness of breath, the heavy legs, the pounding chest, the overwhelming fatigue. I pass a landmark where it happened before but it doesn’t. It happens somewhere else. Damn! and the run was going so well up to then. Other times it’s a perfect run. Everything works.
There are some procedures I will try. Cardioversion is one, where I basically voluntarily let them put those paddles on my chest and shock it back into rhythm. The medical equivalent of smacking the side of a television with bad reception. There’s cardio ablation in which I let them run a wire through my arteries to my heart and kill the part of the muscle that’s spasming. All for the sake of being able to run smoothly. But also to reduce the risk of worse things happening.
Having diabetes already puts me at risk for heart problems. I was kind of hoping diabetes would be it. A. fib really takes a crimp out of my diabetes management plan. The blood thinner, I was warned, could mask the symptoms of hypoglycemia. But mostly, it interferes with my exercise. I don’t like the idea of dreading a run. I hate having to be careful doing that one thing I can do with abandon.
On the other hand, this is one thing that medicine can make go away. The sooner the better.