Last Call

Heart to Heart to Heart

Medical mysteries of the old ticker far outpace the metaphorical ones.

By From the September 2012 issue

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AFTER SEVERAL EXPENSIVE and bothersome tests, modern medical science has determined that I do, in fact, have a heart. Figuring out what went wrong with it is another matter. About two months ago, as the deadline flies, the old ticker came out of the gates without a warning shot and pounded hard and fast for hours. On medical dramas, they’d call this tachycardia and order “15 cc’s” of some medication, “stat!” Concentrated, deep breathing finally brought the beats back to something approaching the normal pace, but there was a problem: For days and then weeks after, the rhythm was all wrong. It would catch and skip in my chest, and it seemed like it might be good to determine what was going on in there.

That’s easier said than diagnosed. It turns out that medical matters of the heart can be almost as mysterious as the metaphorical variety. So far: Blood has been drawn and analyzed, an EKG has tested the body’s wiring, a treadmill has induced stress, and more electrodes have been attached to my body than Dr. Frankenstein attached to his makeshift monster. My chest looks a bit like Steve Carell’s in The 40-Year-Old Virgin after that botched wax hair removal attempt. All of this has been mostly for naught from a diagnostic perspective.

Doctors did manage to find one thing, but it’s blush-worthy. They finally detected some “premature ventricular contractions,” which the definitive Mayo Clinic website informs us are “extra, abnormal heartbeats that begin in one of your heart’s two lower pumping chambers”—the ventricles—and that “disrupt your regular heart rhythm, sometimes causing you to feel a flip-flop or skipped beat in your chest.” Bingo! The online guide calls these “very common” and says they occur “in most people at some point.” What the Minnesota writers of diagnostic manuals don’t describe is the embarrassment that comes along with explaining to interested parties that you happen to be a premature ventriculator. All of a sudden, everybody becomes a teenager again.

Besides, my ventricular cacophony is likely more symptom than cause. I may never know what started all the trouble, and maybe that’s for the best. The original incident has not repeated, knock on wood. Every day going away from it, the heart has felt better, stronger, more even, whole.

To run the risk of sounding like a very young, very blonde Hayley Mills, I’m glad that this happened. I’m glad that it happened when it did, and I’m glad for the world it opened up to me. One old and dear friend, a true-blue conservative, was going through the diagnostic process at the same time as yours truly. We swapped theories and complaints and jokes. We wondered how many of these very expensive tools of medical diagnosis would still be afforded to us under Obamacare, if the law clears the final hurdle. I will admit to a palpitation or two when I went in to be fitted with a 24-hour Holter monitor on the same day as Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberals on the Supreme Court and made that one of two possible outcomes in November.

Other friends and neighbors of every political stripe came out of the crabgrass to tell me their heart stories—of childhood surgeries to correct birth defects, of trips to the emergency room, of batteries of tests and suspenseful waits for the often indeterminate results. A few folks shared stories they hadn’t even told their own families for fear of upsetting them. These confidences I will take with me to my grave, of course. At this point, it looks like something other than my runaway heart will have to put me there.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.