I am sick. I found out on Halloween that I have an enlarged heart. This discovery has already forced numerous changes in my life – none of them I am really happy about, but all of them I must accept.
Because not only is my heart oversized, according to the cardiologist, it’s also weak and arrhythmic, beating two or three times as fast as it should. If the doctors are unable to come up with a plan to treat me, and I am unable to commit to that plan, it’s a certainty that this big heart is going to kill me.
IT’S BEEN A LONG WEEK
Tuesday before last, I attended a journalists’ awards ceremony in San Diego. My throat was a little sore, but I felt fine. By the time I drove home, I had started to feel bad. Wednesday morning I was sick – quite sick. I left home only on Friday night, to attend a math class and take a test that simply could not be made up.
Made me happy, that did not.
But I survived, and still feverish, went home that night and collapsed. Saturday was little better. Around 3 am on Sunday morning, my fever finally broke and I fell into real sleep for the first time in days. Sunday was a good day – I did laundry, ran errands, felt great.
Monday morning I ran down two flights of stairs, grabbed some towels and a bath mat from the dryer, tossed my t-shirts and socks into the same dryer, and ran back upstairs to shower. After that, I took my fine dog, Adam, for his morning walk – and ended up just a bit winded. That’s unusual, since I love to walk, but I ascribed it to the lingering tendrils of illness.
After that, I ran downstairs, grabbed my t-shirts and socks, and ran back upstairs…
I thought I was going to collapse. I couldn’t breathe. I simply had no wind. I had to sit on the bed for almost ten minutes, trying to catch that breath. I am no dummy, so I walked slowly back downstairs to my phone. I was breathing hard when I got downstairs.
An hour before my noon aquatic class, I called in and said I couldn’t attend. An hour after that, I was on the phone with my new doctors’ office, trying to get an emergency appointment. At 3:30, I arrived at San Diego Sports Medicine to meet with a doctor who was helping out mine. I assumed there was an asthmatic or bronchial problem that had to be addressed.
After listening to my heartbeat, he said he wanted to do an EKG. I’m a firm believer in doing what a doctor wants, so I said “sure.” Already deeper into this than I imagined, I lie still while they did their work. After that, the doctor said he also wanted to do a chest X-ray.
I was starting to worry, but not that much. After all, I’d had a full physical in June, had my blood tested, and have seen a doctor about every six months for years.
I’ve never quite felt a bomb go off in my lap – not until the doctor told me, “You have an enlarged heart.”
He showed me the X-ray because it was clear I didn’t believe him. To my best visual estimate, it was somewhere between one-and-a-half and two times as large as it should be.
It turns out that the shortness of breath wasn’t a bronchial issue. My heart is so large that it is pushing against my lungs, stealing my breath. When I wheeze or cough, it’s not because of my lungs, it’s because of my heart.
I have no real history of heart disease in my family. My family has always trafficked in cancer. But my girlfriend’s dad – who I was never able to meet, but would love to have – died of an enlarged heart. I knew this was serious.
WHY WRITE ABOUT THIS?
I’ve spoken with several people who would be impacted by this. I have the blessings of my parents to do this, and a slightly concerned blessing from my girlfriend. Khari Johnson, the editor-in-chief of Imperial Beach Patch, said that he was okay with doing this, but insisted that I don’t allow it to become a stressor.
Max Branscomb, my journalism professor and the publisher of the phenomenally bad-ass Southwestern College Sun that I write for, told me to go ahead and do this if I wished, but he also made it clear that it should never take over my life.
It’s not going to. Let me assure you of that. I felt an urge to write about this, and I still have that urge. I need to make clear why I’m doing it.
There have been blogs and essays and brilliant writings by people who know they are going to die, and there have been even more versions written by people who are working to recover.
I don’t know what’s going to happen. I will be making two or three trips to San Diego each week for a while, having tests done and medications tweaked. Right now, we don’t really know the exact nature of the problems or if they can be fixed at all.
This could end in a few weeks or it could go on for a long time. I have no way of knowing. I am writing this believing that it’s going to end in one of two ways – with me happily detailing my new lifestyle and continued existence, or with a short note on this blog saying that will be last one.
I’m crying a bit as I’m writing. I rarely cry. I think that’s why I’m writing it down. Because I just don’t know.
WARTS AND ALL
One thing that I knew from the beginning was that this was going to be a “warts and all” version. I’m not going to gloss it over. I want no part of a glossy, easy-on-the-mind version. I want people to realize how fast, and how hard, this can be. If you are willing to stick with this, I see no reason why I shouldn’t be honest.
For the sake of privacy, I’m not going to name my doctors. They didn’t sign up for this, and all of them have done, or are doing their best to keep me alive. I’m going to return that respect.
Here we go…
I am a big guy. And by big, I mean, “really tall and really fat.” I am the guy that comes into a room and causes people to say, “Holy crap, that’s a big guy.” And they don’t always mean that in a good way.
I get that. I understand. I’ve been a “big guy” since my college days. I held it to a minimum for about a decade, but a series of sedentary jobs created a situation where I ate, ate, and ate, but never got enough (or in some jobs, any) exercise. I blame no one except myself.
But for the past fifteen years, my health has actually been pretty good. I’ve seen doctors pretty regularly, I’ve eaten better than you think, and I’ve kept tabs on my various issues. This past June, my doctor did a full battalion of blood tests on me. My blood sugar count was outstanding and my cholesterol total was about 117.
A few years ago, I started working to lose weight. Nothing happened. I started eating much healthier and getting more and more exercise. I didn’t expect to be svelte for swimsuit season, but I did think I should lose a few dozen pounds without any problem.
Last winter, a doctor suggested I try the lap band to lose weight. I told her I preferred to lose weight on my own if I could. Since then, I think I’ve lost a few pounds, but not more than that. During that time, I’ve eaten much less, walked much more, and started spending a couple days a week in the pool, swimming and exercising. By any human standard, I should have lost a lot of weight. It hasn’t happened.
So my June visit also included a look at my thyroid levels. According to the test results, there’s no problem with my thyroid. My blood sugar and cholesterol are excellent. I was told that both my heart and lungs were strong. But I was fat.
Quite possibly, at the time I had an enlarged heart.
LONG-TIME OR RECENT?
The cardiologist informed us that either my heart has been growing a long time, or that a recent viral infection could’ve caused it. I worry about both.
The long-term scenario seems impossible. In the past 15 years, I’ve been examined by four different doctors – none of whom reported anything about it – and I was seen in two different emergency rooms (for unrelated issues). Nobody said a thing about my heart, except that it always beat strong.
The recent scenario seems more likely, particularly if this illness last week may have triggered it, or somehow made an existent problem worse.
But I worry that if my heart can swell and grow and affect my lungs the way it has within a week…. then I worry that it is even more dangerous to me right now.
WHERE ARE WE?
For now, I have been told to rest and not exhaust myself. That’s extremely hard. There’s a lot that exhausts me right now. Starting Monday and Tuesday, I went from taking no regular medications to taking five. I have medications to slow my heart, medication to remove water from my system, and medication to thin my blood.
They’re afraid of clotting causing a stroke, you see.
Personally, I don’t expect that this will last long. The first action of the cardiologist was to get me on meds to stabilize my heart so I can breathe easier.
I suspect that very soon I’ll be breathing fine again. But I’ll still have an enlarged heart that’s both arrhythmic and weak, and I’m going to have to follow any course of healing that will salvage it.
I have at least two visits to doctors next week. One is a follow-up visit to the cardiologist. I have questions about the medications, about what I can and can’t do, and about the road we’re traveling.
The other is a lengthy visit to my primary for tests and a new, complete workup.
And there we are.