Life is simple when you stop and think about it. At least in theory that is.
We’re born, and then we go through the various stages of life. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, then there’s the twilight years of our lives and then we shuffle off this mortal coil and quote Every Rose Has Its Thorn to God, if we’re lucky.
Except we all know life isn’t quite that simple, it likes to throw obstacles and monkey wrenches into our everyday, always finding ways to screw with us. Imagine being 17 and asking yourself if you’re going to die at this moment in time, when one of those monkey wrenches comes hurtling at your head, or in my case my heart.
Today on PopLurker, I’m going to discuss a disease that I and a very small number of people have. Catch your breath, because there have been times where I couldn’t.
Heart Attack Man
Let’s set the scene. It’s 1997, I’m 17 and I’m just relaxing one afternoon in my living room watching tv when I get this sudden and unexplained shortness of breath and tightness in my chest.
Now, I’m no doctor but I do know that since my left arm hasn’t gone numb; which as we’ve all been told is one of the signs of a heart attack, that a heart attack is not what I’m experiencing. But again, I’m no doctor so what the hell do I know, right?
Whatever this is that’s happening, it’s freaking me out. Big time. I can’t draw a full breath; my chest is continuing to tighten and I’m beginning to feel lightheaded.
One good thing that came from being raised by my grandparents is that they were at that retirement age where they didn’t need to work, so they were home on a regular basis. Despite everything that was happening to me, I could at least still speak so I told them what was up, and they rushed me to the local emergency room.
From the car ride to the hospital things have calmed down slightly, but I’m still experiencing issues with catching my breath. We get to the ER, and after administering some tests, mainly hooking me up to an ECG and making me jog on a treadmill, the doctors determined I have a condition known as Wolff Parkinson White Syndrome, or WPW for short.
Wolff Parkinson White has nothing to do with Parkinson’s disease as I initially thought despite that Parkinson section of the name. WPW was named after three patients; Wolff, Parkinson and White in 1930 and it affects only 1 to 3 out of every 1,000 people and is defined as a congenital condition involving abnormal conductive cardiac tissue between the atria and the ventricles in the heart.
Essentially, the heart has developed an extra electrical pathway between the upper and lower chambers causing a rapid heartbeat. To simplify it a little, imagine your heart beating and the electrical pathway travels in a circle. With WPW, this circle branches off and the electrical pathway detours and veers off in a different direction.
While PopLurker is about the three E’s (in my opinion at least), entertaining, enlightening and educating, we and that includes myself don’t want to bore you with every medical detail. If you’d like to read more about WPW you can check out this informative link to the Mayo Clinic website.
The reason I was hooked up to an ECG and asked to run a treadmill isn’t because I needed the exercise (although that was debatable) but because there are essentially two ways to get the effects of WPW to subside. Either relax and let it eventually go away on its own, or you can exert yourself and speed your heart rate up enough that the beating exits the detour I mentioned and goes back to its normal circular path.
Armed with this information and feeling myself again after my impromptu jog, I was sent home and told not to worry everything should be fine from here on out, and for the most part this was correct.
For the most part.
Quit Playing Games with My Heart
From the moment I was given my diagnosis of WPW, I’d have the occasional recurring attack for a lack of a better word. I’d become short of breath, but not to the extent it was that first time. It would be a nuisance, an annoyance, but it wouldn’t reach that level of absolute terror again; or so I thought. I’d relax and just wait it out. As I’ve mentioned in past writings for PopLurker, I’ve never been the most athletic or big into sports, so I wasn’t about to do much to over exert myself to get it to pass by.
Also, for as much as I enjoy food, I’ve always been fortunate that I’m one of those “carry it well” types. Given how much I like to eat one would think I’d be tipping the scales in excess of 300 pounds or more, but I’ve always been able to stay within a 190-220 range most of my adult life, despite the amount of garbage food I’ve crammed down my gullet, candy bars being an Achilles heel, but poor diet and excess weight can contribute to WPW.
Growing up with a diabetic grandfather there was always an abundance of candy bars in the house in case his blood sugars would drop. He’d have a bar and a glass of orange juice to regulate himself, so since the cupboard was never without a steady stock of bars of some variety, like a junkie I was always able to get my fix. No one to blame here but me.
A second major scare came to me in 2006 while living in central Canada, Ontario to be exact.
I was at work, partway through my shift, when déjà vu reared its ugly head and I started feeling like I did that afternoon when I was 17. Except this felt worse, much worse. Getting out of work early, I called a cab to take me to the hospital which was only a 5-minute drive away. I would have called my girlfriend, but she was working, and I didn’t want to be a bother, which sounds ridiculous I know, but that’s the way I’ve always been. I never wish to be a burden to anyone even when it comes to my own health and well being.
“I might be about to die, I don’t know. But, don’t leave work on my behalf and get in trouble, I’ll be fine”
What a maroon.
This time what I was experiencing felt more intense than the episode I had 9 years prior, but I figured much like when I was 17 it’ll go away eventually, but I should see a doctor just to be sure.
Unlike when I was 17 however, my symptoms weren’t going anywhere. I couldn’t shake the shortness of breath or the chest tightness this time. Immediately they admitted me (immediately being two hours later, because hospitals am I right) and got me a bed in the ER. I was spending the night whether I liked it or not, and I did not.
As I assumed and perhaps more so hoped, my symptoms did pass with time. It took a lot longer than I would have liked, but they did pass. Eventually, I got to call home and speak to my girlfriend to assure her I would be fine, but she was having none of that. I could hear the concern and the fear in her voice that something was really wrong this time. She knew about my WPW, we had sworn from day one to be open and honest with each other about everything, but she had never experienced me having to go to the hospital for it, let alone having to spend the night there.
Once again, I assured her I was fine and not to worry, they just wanted to run some tests and make sure it either didn’t come back, or at least not with the same level of intensity.
Night came and went, and I was released the next afternoon, but not before the doctor hit me with four words that stuck with me for a while. “You’re a little tubby”.
Great bedside manner, doc.
But they were right, I was carrying more weight than necessary despite “carrying it well”. I was given a heart monitor to wear for a week to ensure my WPW didn’t flare up again to the level it did when I waltzed into their ER and was also advised to meet with some specialists in the nearby city of Kingston, Ontario to discuss whether a catheter ablation would be in my best interest.
Wearing the heart monitor for a week was interesting at best, and gross at worst. Considering I couldn’t get it wet, showering was out of the question. I’ve had long hair most of my adult life, and while I’ve been called a hippie many times, I am a proponent of good grooming, so it was a relief when the week passed, and I could shower again.
Meeting with the specialists in Kingston, I was given more information about WPW that the doctors in Nova Scotia didn’t fill me in on a decade prior. With proper management WPW can be relatively harmless to the patient, albeit frustrating as hell at times. If not properly managed it can lead to cardiac arrest. While they assured me, I was in no immediate danger of having a heart attack because of my existing WPW, they could also eliminate it for me for good by giving me a catheter ablation, which you can read about in greater detail here if you’re interested.
The long and the short of an ablation is they’d run a tube through my groin up to my heart (you want to stick a what in my where?!) and create a scar on my heart, eliminating the extra pathway and ensuring my heartbeat would be regular and normal.
I was told this was completely up to me and was an optional procedure and wasn’t mandatory due to my minimal risk of life threatening symptoms. I don’t mind things going near my groin and especially on my groin of course, but I wasn’t down with the idea of something going through it, so I declined.
The diagnosis was simple, get healthier tubby! I had already cut salt and margarine out of my life when I was 14, after watching my grandfather go through a quadruple bypass, so changes to my diet weren’t virgin territory to me. While it would happen gradually over the next few years, I eventually cut soda and most sugars out of my life. I indulge my sweet tooth every now and then, but there’s no cupboard full of candy bars anymore.
My Heart Will Go On
Since my last major incident 12 years ago, my life with WPW has been pretty much ok. I still have struggles with my weight from time to time, which is something I’m continuing to work on, having also cut sugar out of my coffee for starters, but one of the other things I’ve discovered that seems to trigger my WPW is humidity.
Growing up by the Atlantic Ocean in Nova Scotia, then living in Ontario for four years near the Great Lakes, and even on a trip to Cancun a few years ago, I discovered that for me at least overly hot, muggy weather is a recipe for my symptoms to flare up.
Having lived in the prairies of Alberta now for the past decade my WPW hardly ever causes me any problems. Despite the increased elevation here which you’d think would be a red flag, the dry, cool climate of Calgary helps keep things in check. My goal is to also get my weight under 200 pounds sooner rather than later and maybe I will get that ablation one day as well just to be on the safe side, because my future is important to me, and as Doc Brown once said,
“…your future hasn’t been written yet, no one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one”.