Health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

February Heart Awareness Month – My Heart Story

As you know, awareness is my passion. February is Black History Month (current read: Maya Angelo Poems) and also American Heart Month. I want to share my heart story in hopes to inspire and educate.

I was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, meaning that I had an extra pathway between my heart’s upper and lower chambers. This pathway cause rapid heart rates.

I was undiagnosed until my first cardiac ablation at the age of 19. Most of my childhood, I complained that my heart was racing but my softball and basketball coaches, P.E. teacher and most adults said that it was normal when you are running around. Well, it was normal for me alright.

Eventually, my face started to turn bright red during episodes and white around my eyes and lips. It was exhausting, but once again, it was my normal. I loathed gym class. To get out of it, I would go to the school nurse and tell her I didn’t feel well. At 15, I took my usual stroll to the nurse’s office to get out of P.E. and after looking at my face, she was prompted to take my pulse; it was too fast to count. She called an ambulance but my fast rhythm had converted to a normal rhythm by the time they showed up. It was difficult to catch the arrhythmias so my parents and doctor met and decided an event monitor was best. Within the hour of getting home from the doctors visit, my arrhythmias kicked in and we sent it in right away. I was having Supraventricular Tachycardia with rates over 250 beats per minute, nearing the 300s.

After being told I would outgrow SVT (which I had since I can remember), I found they were wrong and it only got worse. My heart would go into these arrhythmias about five times every hour, all day, sometimes lasting up to 30 minutes. At the age of nineteen, I finally have my first cardiac ablation. This procedure lasted six and a half hours! Normally, it only takes 45 minutes to an hour and a half, but they discovered the extra pathway and I was a difficult case. Since it was unsuccessful, we tried again in six weeks. Though my episodes were reduced, I still had arrhythmias and had two more ablations, a total of four cardiac ablations.

My heart would drop into the 30s and 40s and shoot up near the 200s, all day and night, with no rhyme or reason. I always asked what caused all my health issues no one cared to investigate. In my early twenties, I was also diagnosed with (POTS) Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome but never spoke of it again. I had no idea what that meant and was uneducated by my doctor, therefore I never managed it. I didn’t stay hydrated and I was told to avoid salt, when really I needed a high salt diet. I spent my entire 20s with roller coaster heart rates and a lack of education about my health, as well as missing puzzle pieces to what was causing my chronic health issues.

In 2011, at the age of 26, I had open heart surgery. Prior to this, I went to multiple ER visits and appointments but they were looking for SVT and high heart rates, not a leaky aortic valve. I spent years being dismissed as they refused to look further. After finally getting an echo, I was diagnosed with moderate to severe aortic insufficiency. No doctor in my area wanted to touch me and when one hesitantly suggested to operate, I did not trust his confidence. I joined Heart Valve Surgery group online for support and found Kevin Accola, the most incredible surgeon in the area.

Dr. Accola said, “wow, what an interesting case! I can’t wait to find out what is going on and fix it! When is good for you?” I about cried in disbelief that someone cared and wanted to help. We scheduled a date. He informed me that he would do his best to repair my heart to avoid an artificial valve so that I didn’t need to be on harsh meds my entire life. He showed me the valve I would get just incase I needed one. I held it in my hands, the metal piece that could go into my heart… the heart that my doctor was going to have in his hands. Fortunately, he was able to repair a hole in my aortic valve and with a three inch incision instead of the classic nine inch sternotomy.

Healing was tough but pretty smooth. I had almost accidentally overdosed on pain meds. I was supposed to have someone taking care of me for the first two weeks and with a broken sternum and sensitive heart rhythm, I was pretty out of it and couldn’t keep track. I also had a hard time with my breathing and started to get fluid in my lungs but worked hard with my spirometer and by three months, I was feeling back to myself. I did reject the sternum wires and needed to get them removed as they were about to come out on their own!

In January of 2017, I was having scary arrhythmias and my body was going into shock. I was in the ER every other night for two months. My arrhythmias were not getting caught at the ER so they diagnosed me with anxiety and panic disorder, sending me home. I saw several doctors but once you get (mis)diagnosed and labeled, it is hard to be taken seriously. I finally got an event monitor from my cardiologist to record my rhythms for a few weeks. I passed out leaving an appointment and it was caught on the monitor. My doctor ordered a Tilt Table Test and triggered an episode. I was diagnosed with Neurological Syncope, where my heart rate would randomly plummet. With my nighttime heart rate dips into the low 40s and occasional 30s, I finally got a pacemaker in June of 2018. Truth be told, I could have used one a decade ago, when I had documented ER visits with rates in the low 30s. However, I stuck with the same doctor and never got outside options previously.

A few of my main health issues are caused by Dysautonomia, the dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system. In 2018, I was finally diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.

As of today, my latest heart update is that I have been having tachycardia in my sleep, picked up on my pacemaker checks. My recent echo showed that three of my heart valves leak mildly and my aortic valve leaks mild to moderate. Both my aortic and mitral valve have sclerosis (calcification and thickening). My aortic root is mildly dilated, which could be the start of an aortic aneurism. Aneurisms are fairly common with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.

At some point, I will need my valve replaced (at the very least). I decided to go with a pig valve to avoid the meds and because I rejected the sternum wires last time. I also have a genetic mutation MTHFR which can possibly be the cause of metal sensitivities, and another mutation that causes me not to metabolize Warfarin, a common med used to thin your blood after a heart valve replacement. Fortunately, I didn’t need the artificial valve earlier, before I found out about these mutations.

And now we watch and wait. Having a lifetime of heart issues is a scary thing to live with. Knowing that age is nothing but a number for me, and irrelevant, is a hard pill to swallow. Being told I am “young and healthy” is something I hear often. Even with my health history, I still have a hard time being heard. This is why advocacy and being educated on your health, is so important. I truly believe that I would be dead if I hadn’t fought to be heard.

Keep up with your medical check ups and get copies of all of your tests and labs. Ask questions, get second opinions and educate yourself and your family. If you don’t like your hairstylist, you go to a different salon, right? So why do we act stuck with whatever doctor we are handed but will so easily get a new stylist? Find a doctor that you trust and feel comfortable with. Be a teammate with your health plan and don’t give up when you feel dismissed. Find a support group online because you will learn more from them than your physician.

Spread awareness, educate yourself and others, and advocate for your health. You got this!

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