A Deformed Heart? Of Course, I Guess
I suppose that I secretly always secretly believed something was wrong with my heart. It beats too fast and I get anxiety easily, although that has started to fade now that I am getting exercise for about 5 hours a week, it’s a consistent part of my biology. It has also hurt a lot, like it was falling out.
My heart is a toughie, it’s had to deal with my adrenaline and fear a lot of years. It’s dealt with my abusive relationship with myself as well as others. It’s lived with every poison I put in me and every toxic personality I’ve let close to me.
For years, I gave no f*cks about my heart or health. I ate Cheeze-It’s and cheese doodles, Hot Pockets and pizza from the corner store for most of my 20’s. When I wasn’t going to places like Chili’s with friends, I was eating half-price happy hour burgers at a bar, smothered in cheese and paired with nachos. I’d later binge drink. For a while, I even “experimented” with the kinds of illicit drugs that were also heart pounding. These were long-term experiments that lasted up to six months at a time and never really turned out well. I was lucky; I still managed to detox on my own couch, and fold up into misery for months at a time.
Yes, my heart is a survivor.
And although I survived, and eventually gave up that garbage lifestyle, I was reckless and nonchalant about how and of this would affect me later. Frankly, I was a depressed, anxious, 20 to 30-something, and at the time, I just didn’t give a damn. When I was asked to think about the future, I would draw a big blank. I never imagined myself doing anything more than what I was doing at the time; staring into the future was like staring into the abyss.
In the past year, I’ve been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease — a thyroid disorder, and Trigeminal Neuralgia — a very painful neurological disorder. So when I was referred to a cardiologist for tachycardia (a fancy way to say my blood pressure hovers over 100 when I am awake and barely moving around) it didn’t really shock me. All those cheese doodles and cheese-drenched microwavables have to take their toll on you, right? Plus the uppers I loved when I was a teen. And the other uppers I loved for a while as an adult. Combined with a regular serving of cheese doodles — made from a substance so unrecognizable, after all, it might itself just harden right inside your arteries as soon as it becomes blood — and 19 years of smoking (I quit 2 years ago!) I was certain I’d reserved an early space in the grave.
So when my primary care physician decided to challenge my self-diagnosis of “white coat syndrome” and send me to a cardiologist, I shrugged and said, “okay” as I secretly agonized. To say I was scared to see a cardiologist was a given, but I no longer put off tests because I am scared. There could be a lot that is silently wrong with me. Whenever my doctors wanted to send me for additional testing as a kid, my mother would change doctors. Last year, I discovered I’d missed several key immunizations as a kid. So I am certain that there could be many other illnesses lurking, hidden, inside me. I turn bright red with any sort of exercise, and I always have. My heart beats fast (up to 152 a minute!) when I feel anxious, which is any time I see the doctor.
Sure, there could be easily something wrong with my heart.
We did a bunch of tests and labs. The cardiologist, a no-nonsense, overachieving female doctor/teacher at Georgetown University sent me for an echocardiogram, which is basically a sonogram of your heart. The technician was a tough, kind, African-American man from Georgia — former Army, 12 years, he told me — and he made pleasant conversation as he jabbed under my left boob — hard, because it’s big! — to scan images.
He later called a nurse in to inject bubbles into me over and over again and zoomed in on them on the screen. The bubbles are to show if there is a tiny hole between chambers. The tech and the nurse flirted. She missed the vein for the IV and left a screaming purple bruise. As she stood there, sending more bubbles into my heart, the technician began to brag to her. “Look at that!” he told the nurse, “This is why I’m the best! This is some of my best work!”
When I heard him say that, I realized something was up. I know from watching House that “best work” when you’re doing a test like this means “something’s there” and that they found it.
They continued taking images and videos of my heart. It took forever. It was loud. I could hear my heart go SWISH-SWISH loudly and then it would get louder as my anxiety reminded me that that awful, loud, chaotic sound of moving tissues was ME. For some reason, it really freaked me out that a sonogram that shows a fetus swimming in wombs was now showing my heart do its loud and very primal-sounding job. It occurred to me that nobody was ever meant to watch the heart work or hear it in what sounded like surround sound.
After about an hour, the whole thing was over. I waited four weeks to get back to the cardiologist. She told me sometimes I have a few extra beats a minute, but there is no hole in my heart. The function seemed good and she wants to hold off on medication for the high heart rate and blood pressure.
HOWEVER, it appears that there is a physical defect that they can’t ignore.
The “best work” my technician had documented during the echocardiogram was an image that revealed a deformation in my heart. The bottom left part of my heart seems kind of pinched or flattened, while the bottom right part seemed too thick in such a way that blood may have trouble flowing through it.
“I’ve only seen this once,” my cardiologist told me, “and it’s probably fine. It’s a birth defect, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dangerous. We just need to see more closely if it affects the heart’s function.”
She did not elaborate on what it means if it does. But I’m a smart girl, and I know what it means. Just like I knew what it meant when I had the brain MRI and they found the source of my facial pain. One day, they may have to cut me open to fix it completely. Once the other options have run out.
Today I will schedule the MRI. This will be my 3rd MRI since January. I had one on my brain for trigeminal neuralgia and one for my shoulder to see the torn labrum. This 3rd one I finally requested anxiety medication for.
This is not what I planned to do this year. But your body doesn’t tell you its plans.
I am currently working as a freelancer and have meds for my trigeminal neuralgia that I keep having to adjust to, again. I sometimes walk around like a zombie. But I’m a zombie without excruciating face pain, and I’m kind of guessing that’s the best I can hope for, some days. The medication puts me to sleep every day. But all these other aspirations sleep with me when I sleep. And it’s hard, because I’m trying to work on getting my Bachelor’s degree after dropping out at the age of 25 and I feel like I’m always struggling.
But at least, when this is over, one more mystery solved. And then I can find another new normal, if I need to.