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learning to live with a broken heart

I first learned to fear my heart on the slopes of an active volcano. I was visiting Costa Rica with a university class and a local doctor. Near a sign warning of unexpected rashes, I felt a chain of erratic heartbeats flutter in my chest. I was more curious than worried, but when I mentioned them to the doctor, he turned serious. He told me to see a cardiologist as soon as he got home.

The palpitations came back when I got back to Ohio. This time, the chaotic beating of my heart terrified me and I begged my brother to take me to the hospital. However, when the doctors examined me, my heart had returned to its normal rhythm and they interpreted my symptoms as a panic attack. I was left wondering if the problem was in my chest or in my mind.

When I finished my freshman year of college and turned nineteen, heart palpitations and panic attacks haunted me. I was afraid of my heart, but I still considered myself healthy; She wasn’t ready to see an expert who could confirm that he had a heart condition. 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.”

Later that spring, I felt a new sensation in my chest: a fast, forceful rumble that left me dizzy and gasping for breath. It was nothing like the heavy thud of my pulse after exercise; it felt wrong, even when he remained invisible to others. My partner took me to the hospital, where I was immediately admitted and given a dose of adenosine. The drug crashed into me: my heart lurched, then resumed its usual rhythm. A cardiologist studied my EKG but said it wasn’t clear enough for a conclusive diagnosis. They told me to run back 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 no hope of a cure. Once, while sailing my family’s boat on Lake Erie, I felt the second, more disturbing type of palpitation. Far from land, getting to the hospital was not an option. I tried to explain what I was feeling to my mom 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 disturbed my heart, in those years of anxiety, was the weather, another thing that I could not control. As a child, I wasn’t particularly afraid of storms, not even the tornado that once hit my hometown. But that had changed. During a storm, a gust caused my car to skid across the parking lot of my sailing club. I ran through the darkness to get in, 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 City with my partner and we took one last ride around Lake Erie. As we wandered along the shore, thick clouds bloomed on the horizon, but none of us expected anything more than rain.

The clouds darkened as we got back to the car. My partner was driving us back to his family’s house when hail began to hit the roof. He grew to the size of golf balls, and a tornado siren sounded. We exchange worried glances; I grabbed his thigh as he sped up.

When we arrived at his family’s neighborhood, the wind, hail, and rain obscured everything beyond a few feet. A large tree crashed into the road, blocking our path.

“Drive around!” I yelled. The tires left wet ruts in a neighbor’s lawn.

We pulled into her family’s driveway and the garage door screeched open. We bend to get in as fast as possible. I walked between the kitchen and the living room, breathing heavily, feeling little pounding in my heart, and shaking so badly I couldn’t speak.

The adrenaline lasted longer than the storm. Meteorologists called it a microburst: a brief, extreme downdraft within a thunderstorm that struck a small segment of Catawba Island’s tiny peninsula.

Later, when the beating of the rain and my heart calmed down, we wandered through the streets. A confetti of leaves covered the sidewalks. The hail had turned the front yards into shingle gardens. We saw downed trees, tangled power lines, and crushed cars. Neighbors also wandered the streets, snapping 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 here? If the little storm in my heart hadn’t abated, would I still be here?

I moved to New York City to study journalism in July 2012. In October, a storm called Sandy became a hurricane on its way 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 just a block from the Manhattan evacuation zone, so I slept on a classmate’s couch on the Upper East Side, listening to the wind whipping up the fire escape.

The morning brought news of the calamity: power outages in dozens of blocks, floods in all districts, houses destroyed, subway lines filled with water. Ultimately, forty-four New York City residents died. My journalism professors felt the opportunity to learn about disaster reporting and breaking news, so in the days that followed, I interviewed people who had lost their homes. Some survived the storm only to learn that their neighbors had died.

Two weeks later, my heart failed again.

My partner and I walked ten blocks in panic to an urgent care clinic in Manhattan. My pulse quickened to a hundred and fifty beats per minute. Each explosion seemed to shake my collarbone and throat. My lungs heaved like a rusty bellows.

My partner took a seat in the waiting room. In an empty exam room, an after-hours doctor asked if this had happened before. “Yes, five or six times,” I told him. He attached a tangle of wires to my chest, torso, and arms so an EKG could monitor my heart. He 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 up. The doctor called the paramedics. As we waited, spasms wracked my muscles. When the EMTs arrived, my arms were locked in a bird’s-wing position; they forced my arm to stretch out and exposed the veins near my elbow.

The first attempt to insert an IV resulted in a spurt of blood from my arm. He 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, scared me more than anything else.

Finally, the needle went in. The first dose of adenosine momentarily stopped my heart. But almost immediately, the palpitations returned. I squeezed my eyes shut, thinking this could kill me and telling myself to think about family.

“We are going to 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. They were taking me to an ambulance. When my partner saw me, he was horrified. On the way to the hospital, I threw up, a side effect of the adenosine.

I didn’t sleep that night. They did blood and heart tests, and injected potassium into my veins. Finally, a doctor declared that he had supraventricular tachycardia. The electrical signals that become heartbeats, the doctor said, followed an abnormal electrical pathway. Most episodes of SVT are too short and infrequent to need treatment, but the worst can cause cardiac arrest. My symptoms were severe enough to require surgery.

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