I first learned to fear my heart on the slopes of an active volcano. I was visiting Costa Rica with a college class and a local doctor. Near a sign warning of unexpected eruptions, I felt a series of erratic throbs float through my chest. I was more curious than worried, but when I mentioned it to the doctor, he looked serious. He told me to see a cardiologist as soon as I got home.
The palpitations returned when I returned to Ohio. This time my chaotic heartbeat terrified me and I begged my brother to take me to the hospital. By the time the doctors examined me, however, my heart was back to normal and they interpreted my symptoms as a panic attack. I wondered if the problem was in my chest or in my mind.
As I finished my freshman year of college and was nineteen, heart palpitations and panic attacks haunted me. I was afraid of my heart but I still considered myself in good health; I wasn’t ready to see an expert who could confirm that I had heart disease. Instead, I made an appointment with a college therapist. He told me to read a book called “Looking at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.”
In late spring, I felt a new sensation in my chest – a rapid, powerful buzz that left me dizzy and had trouble breathing. It had nothing to do with the dull sound of my pulse after exercise; he felt Wrong, even as he remained invisible to others. My partner drove me to the hospital, where I was immediately admitted and given a dose of adenosine. The drug hit me: my heart jumped, then resumed its usual rhythm. A cardiologist studied my electrocardiogram but said it was not clear enough for a conclusive diagnosis. I was told to rush to the hospital if it happened again.
I hated being alone with the irregular ticking of my heart. Having no explanation for my condition meant having no hope of recovery. Once, while cruising my family’s boat around Lake Erie, I felt the second, more disruptive type of throbbing. Far from the mainland, going to the hospital was not an option. I tried to explain how I felt to my mother and pointed to the veins in my throat, where my pulse was beating with an uncomfortable force. “I don’t see anything,” she told me. Twenty minutes later, the palpitations dissipated as if they had never been there.
One of the things that troubled my heart in those anxious years was the weather, something else I couldn’t control. As a child, I wasn’t particularly afraid of storms, not even the tornado that once tore through my hometown. But that had changed. During a storm, a gust made my car skid in the parking lot of my sailing club. I ran in the dark to get inside, then hid my panic by burying my face in a friend’s shoulder.
A few years later, another storm hit without warning on a sunny summer afternoon. I was getting ready to move to New York with my partner and we took one last walk along Lake Erie. As we wandered the shore, thick clouds bloomed on the horizon, but neither of us expected anything but rain.
The clouds darkened as we returned to the car. My partner was driving us home to his family when the hail started hitting the roof. It grew to the size of golf balls and a tornado siren sounded. We exchanged worried looks; I gripped his thigh as he accelerated.
As we arrived at his family’s neighborhood, wind, hail and rain obscured everything beyond a few feet. A large tree crashed into the road, blocking our path.
“Drive around her!” I screamed. The tires left wet furrows in a neighbour’s lawn.
We pulled up in his family’s driveway and the garage door creaked open. We doubled up to get in as quickly as possible. I paced between the kitchen and the living room, breathing hard, feeling small flutters in my heart, and shaking so hard I couldn’t speak.
The adrenaline outlasted the storm. Meteorologists called it a microburst – a brief, extreme downdraft in a thunderstorm that hit a small segment of the small peninsula on Catawba Island.
Later, when the rain pounded and my heart slowed, we wandered the streets. A confetti of leaves covered the sidewalks. The hail had turned the front yards into pebble gardens. We saw downed trees, tangled power lines and crushed cars. Neighbors also wandered the streets, taking photos and gawking.
If we had left the beach a few minutes earlier and a tree had fallen on our car, would we still be there? If the little storm in my heart hadn’t died down, would I still be here?
I moved to New York to attend journalism school in July 2012. In October, a storm named Sandy turned into a hurricane as it headed north from the Caribbean. The governor’s office issued emergency preparedness orders; the mayor ordered evacuations from parts of the five boroughs. My apartment was only a block from the Manhattan evacuation zone, so I slept on a classmate’s couch on the Upper East Side, listening to the wind blow around the emergency stairs.
The morning brought news of the calamity: power cut for dozens of city blocks, flooding in every borough, houses destroyed, subway lines filled with water. Ultimately, forty-four New Yorkers died. My journalism teachers sensed an opportunity to learn more about disaster reporting and breaking news, so in the days that followed, I interviewed people who had lost their homes. Some survived the storm to learn that their neighbors had died.
Two weeks later, my heart went wrong again.
My partner and I walked ten blocks in panic to an urgent care clinic in Manhattan. My pulse was beating at one hundred and fifty beats per minute. Each boom seemed to shake my collarbone and my throat. My lungs swelled like a rusty bellows.
My companion took his place in the waiting room. In a bare exam room, a doctor on duty asked if this had happened before. “Yes, five or six times,” I tell him. She connected a tangle of wires to my chest, torso, and arms so an EKG could monitor my heart. She wanted to keep me under observation in the hope that the palpitations might subside.
They got worse. I had more trouble breathing. My limbs went numb, then started to seize. The doctor called the paramedics. As we waited, spasms shook my muscles. By the time the paramedics arrived, my arms were locked in a bird’s wing position; they forced my arm straight up and exposed the veins near my elbow.
The first attempt to insert an IV caused blood to spray from my arm. It covered my shirt, my bra and the floor.
” What is happening to me ? I tried to ask.
But my face had gone numb. The inability to speak, to make myself understood, frightened me more than anything else.
Finally, the needle entered. The first dose of adenosine momentarily stopped my heart. But almost immediately, the palpitations returned. I closed my eyes, thinking it might kill me and telling myself to think about family.
“We will try a second dose,” said one of the paramedics.
I felt another burst of intense pressure and heat. And then the drumming stopped.
I opened my eyes. I was taken in an ambulance. When my partner saw me he looked horrified. On the way to the hospital, I threw up, a side effect of adenosine.
I didn’t sleep that night. I had blood tests and heart tests, and potassium was pumped through my veins. Eventually a doctor said I had supraventricular tachycardia. The electrical signals that become heartbeats, the doctor said, were following an abnormal electrical pathway. Most episodes of SVT are too brief and infrequent to require treatment, but the worst can cause cardiac arrest. My symptoms were severe enough to require surgery.