This post is 1160 words, a 9-minute read for most. Please let me know if it’s odiously long.
The heart is an amazing thing.
It’s an ugly thing to look at, though. It’s shaped like a mutant upside-down pear, no bigger than your fist, with worm-like arteries bubbling all over its surface and aortas like engorged limbs jutting out from every direction. It’s honestly hideous.
This fist-sized abomination only weighs between 8 and 10 ounces, but is responsible for pumping 2,000 gallons of blood through 60,000 miles of blood vessels in your body every day, feeding your organs and tissues, keeping you alive. It beats about 100,000 times in order to accomplish this daily task.
It’s beating right now, as I type these words. It’s beating as you read, sitting at your computer or hunched over your mobile phone. It’s beating when you sleep and beating as you eat your breakfast. It beats slowly when you rest and quickly when you exercise. It does this with no help or volition from you or me.
And most of us completely ignore it, until it demands our attention.
I don’t remember what it’s like to ignore my heart. It gripped my undivided attention for the first time in 2008. In the middle of the night, it jolted me from a deep sleep, suddenly pounding and racing faster than I’d ever experienced. It felt like a feral animal, trapped in my chest, trying desperately to escape. I could barely breathe. I tried to take deep breaths, tried holding my breath, tried getting down on the floor, stretching and bending. Nothing worked.
I told my wife to call 911, and walked slowly into the living room, where I lay down on the floor in case I blacked out.
As I lay there, staring at our ceiling with my heart thumping in my ears, I began to revisit the last few years of my medical history. I’d been to the emergency room at least 30 times or more with various aches and pains. I’d experienced all manner of panic attacks and stress-related issues, from numbness in my extremities to chest and arm pain. My blood pressure was high, and growing higher with each pound I gained. I was 325 lbs., over 100 lbs. heavier than my healthy college weight. I would later pile 32 additional pounds onto my aching frame, soundly placing me in the “morbidly obese” category of any medical rubric.
I remembered the dozens of conversations with doctors and nurses, all of whom told me the same thing: if you don’t lose weight and exercise, you aren’t going to be alive much longer. I knew they were right, and for a time, I would follow their advice. I’d go low carb, eating a little more sensibly and go bike riding or walking whenever I got the chance. Inevitably, however, I would feel a little better. My ailments would seem less urgent, and my resolve eventually withered into resignation. Before I knew it, I was back to fast food and sweets, and add a few more pounds than I had before.
Back in 2006, when we were living in Canada, my doctors performed a nuclear stress test on me. It’s the test where they put you on a treadmill, inject you with radioactive material, and then take a bunch of scans of your heart to see if everything is flowing as it should. I was nervous, but I passed the test. No blockages. I wonder, however, if they saw some thickening in my heart muscle or some narrowing in my arteries even then. Knowing what I know now, I wish they could’ve looked closer and said, “You’re okay now, but your arteries are definitely not as open as they could be.”
Maybe that’s asking too much, I guess. I probably would’ve ignored their warnings, too.
The paramedics arrived quickly. Within seconds of their arrival, I was hooked up to monitors and cuffs. My blood pressure was dangerously high — about 170/110, if memory serves — and my heart rate was 180 beats per minute.
“Okay, Mr. Cave,” one of them said. “We’re going to have to try to get your heart rate down before we take you to the hospital.”
She coached me through a few vagal maneuvers, bearing down exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve and slow down your heart. It’s basically like you’re pushing during a bowel movement. As we were performing this, I was of course imagining a horrifying scenario where my pushes “yielded fruit,” and these paramedics, both of whom were young women, would recoil in horror, later entertaining their friends with the story of the guy who soiled himself while trying to avoid death. I’m sure the story would’ve been hilarious at parties, but not at the dinner table.
I was too scared to care, truthfully, but the pushing did help my heart rate, which we brought down to about 130 bpm before they’d strapped me in a gurney, loaded me onto the truck, and began racing towards St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah.
The ER was packed, and the paramedics had to leave me in a hallway near the entrance until they could figure out if I had a room or not. I was staring at the monitors beside me throughout the drive and arrival, watching my heart rate and blood pressure to see if I was improving. My heart was still beating at about 130 bpm, but it had begun to chug and thump irregularly, as if it was tiring out or the electricity was shorting. The skips and pauses were taking my breath, and I wasn’t sure how long it would keep this up before stopping altogether.
I expressed my concerns to a passing nurse. She was older than the rest, with dark hair and green, almost emerald-colored eyes that matched the color of her scrubs. She listened to my heart and looked at the monitor. Her brow furrowed and her mouth pursed, and she told me she would make sure I got a room as soon as possible. I watched her approach a doctor and motion my way, and within a minute, I was moved to a large operating room, wide and spacious, lined with monitors and equipment and two large surgical lights overhead.
They rolled me directly under the surgical lights, each of which looked like a large halo over my head — not the best visual for me at that moment. I wasn’t ready to die, and I was whispering a prayer in which I articulated this fact, asking God not to let it end like this.
Within seconds, they had me hooked up to an EKG. The doctor ripped the print off the machine, whispered to one of his nurses and said, “Mr. Cave, we’re going to have to reboot your heart.”
Reboot my heart?! But what if I don’t have it backed up?!