My heart journey
Many friends have recently asked about my heart, after hearing that I was going to get surgery. I haven’t had the chance to fully tell the story of it all from start to finish, because to be honest, it’s a long story. I don’t want to burden others. Sometimes I’m so so sick of thinking about it. The full gamut of excuses. However, as I currently sit on this airplane on the way to California where the procedure will be done, I am almost in disbelief that it is finally happening – the solution.
But it wasn’t always so clean-cut and definitive.
In fact, it was quite the opposite, as you will soon learn.
I feel that it is important that I write about this in-between space, when things were maddeningly unsure and uncomfortable, because though I may be tired of recalling it right now, it is very much part of this story. My story. It is important to write for myself, but also for others who may be going through something similar in this moment or in the future.
Know that I wasn’t alone, and neither will you be.
Chapter 1: Just breathe
About a year ago, Oahu was receiving a fair amount of vog from our neighboring Hawaii island (the “Big Island”). For those unfamiliar to this term “vog,” it is volcanic fog – a mixture of volcanic ash and gases emitted from the active volcanic sites on the Big Island / Hawaii Island, carried on the wind to other islands, which affects visibility and breathing much like fog would.
For some, it’s not a biggie. I never dealt with any headaches or breathing problems growing up here, ever. But for some reason, this year it seemed to be hitting me hard, as I felt that I never could manage a full breath of air, which is a big deal to someone who teaches a language, sings in a band & does a lot of yoga. It literally was as if someone was sitting on my chest. After a few days of this, I decided to swing by a nearby clinic, at the urging of my mother. Being that she’s the kind of mom that would only take us to the doctor to either get the necessary forms filled for school each year, or if we were gravely ill, I found it curious that she urged me to visit the clinic and even offered to drive me there. But she did.
At the clinic, I described my difficulty breathing to them, hinting that perhaps it was the vog. They agreed that they had received several patients who also had respiratory issues, however just to be sure, they wanted to run an EKG to check my heart. Thinking nothing of it, I was surprised to hear them tell me with firm authority that I needed to go to an emergency room. Now. They could either call me an ambulance or I had to arrange for someone to drive me. I could not drive myself. I was perplexed. Besides my difficulty breathing, I felt very much fine. They reiterated that they were indeed serious, and my heart results had come back as very irregular.
We headed to Queen’s Hospital Emergency Room, a first for me, as I smirked at the funny hospital gown. I still felt totally fine, but after several hours of tests of which I couldn’t recall the names, I began to grow anxious as we waited for the results. Finally, after almost 4 hours, the ER doctor was able to clear me for leave, saying that I was stable, however my heart was very irregular and I would definitely have to see a specialist.
Not long after, at the urging of my fiancé, I searched for cardiologists, jotted down their name on the back of an envelope & called to see when the nearest appointment would be available. I worked my way down the list, impatiently crossing off doctors whose wait time was over 2-3 months. Finally, I found one that could take me in a few weeks.
Chapter 2: Doctor number one
Dr. P was an interesting man. Knowledgeable, yes, but idiosyncratically intense in a way that made each sentence stated sound like it ended with a giant PERIOD. After many visits, and I mean a frustratingly inefficient amount, we managed to take EKGs, electrocardiograms, and hook me up to a 24-hour holster that adhered to my chest & made me feel like a space-age android.
That my heart has a high amount of irregular or extra heartbeats, which can cause weakening of the heart structure over time. These are called PVCs. My heart doesn’t push out as much blood as it should in a normal beat, which should be at about 50% but is only at about 40%.
OH, also that Dr. P was the wrong type of cardiologist for me. Say what?
I know. Frustrating.
As he described it, he was a plumber for hearts: arteries and valves were his game. Fair enough. What I needed? An electrician for the heart… what they call an electrophysiologist or EP for short.
Chapter 3: Doctor number two
A referral got me into another office several months later. My spirits had been renewed with a break from those tests, and I felt ready to see Doctor number two. We will call him Dr. Dawg. (Obviously, this is not his real name, but it’s what we’ll go with for blog’s sake.) Dr. D was everything that Dr. P was not – personable, friendly, and dare I say, funny.
He told me that I would probably need an ablation, a relatively low-risk procedure during which a catheter is inserted through the leg-groin region and laced up into the heart ventricle to basically “blast” the problematic group(s) of cells that are conducting the electric brain signals incorrectly, creating my PVCs, or high amount of extra heart beats. The risk was that my PVCs were occurring in the left ventricle, instead of the usual case of the right, which means there is a higher possibility of stroke or heart attack during the procedure since the left ventricle is connected to the brain.
By this time, to give us all a timeframe, it was the fall of 2016 & November if I remember correctly. We did a couple of tests to update records and made an appointment for an MRI set for January 4th. This little detail is important.
But I didn’t know it at the time.
Chapter 4: Plot twist
In November, I was 25 years old. This was no longer by January, when I had turned 26, blissfully unaware to the arbitrary yet crucial details of American healthcare. You see, normally this little detail wouldn’t mean much more than another year older & hopefully wiser. But oh, was I about to learn just how much wiser. My appointments with Dr. Dawg were covered under my HMSA insurance, or rather that of my mother, which only stands to cover a dependent until 26 years of age, according to U.S. healthcare law.
This meant that I could not continue seeing Dr. D to receive the results of the MRI. On top of that, in another few months, thanks to medical billing and the United States Postal Service, I would realize with sinking dread that the January 4th MRI, no longer being insured by HMSA but rather Kaiser, would cost a total of $500 … then another $800 that would be billed in a few months later.
I can only hope that this is all the wizening my 26th year holds for me.
Chapter 5: Sweat, luck & the light at the end of the tunnel
My practice at a local hot yoga studio has given me much:
exercise, flexibility, a toned gut (on a good day), perspective, patience, control of breath and thought… however, I never did not expect what it would hold for me on the afternoon of January 11, 2017. Or rather who. (Whom)
. . .
Dr. Dawg. He was into the downward dogs. He did hot yoga & he was in this studio, right now, in front of me. Pinch me, I thought, as I wondered a question I oft query when things are wildly coincidental or wonderful:
“Is this real life?!”
He was his usual friendly & talkative self, as I struck up a conversation before class, bringing up the whole insurance ordeal that would prevent me from seeing him to go over the MRI results. To me, it was more of an apology & goodbye of sorts. There was nothing I could do, unfortunately, and I was honestly disappointed that I had finally found a great doctor, gained some ground with tests, yet with the unexpected turn of events, returned to square 1 & that scribbled back of an envelope with names, numbers, and months of waiting.
He casually replied that he could just print out my results & go over it with me after yoga sometime. This is exactly what he did, and I couldn’t believe it. He gave me a breakdown and understanding of what exactly was up with my heart, complete with roughly drawn diagram on the back of a (wait for it) envelope, as well as a recommended plan of action.
Chapter 6: The Tricky Part
The tricky part was that I was now in the Kaiser network, due to my casual choice of insurance when the teaching year had begun. For several reasons, I knew I would not be getting my much-needed ablation procedure with Kaiser.
The trickier part was that I am technically a lecturer at the college where I teach. This means that I only have insurance when I teach full-time (around 4 classes), which is no problem during the academic year from late August to May. However, those intermediary summer months prove problematic.
In years past, I just made sure to be careful while I spent those summer months uninsured.
I know, I know, really not an ideal strategy or "adult" way of taking care of myself.
My fiancé is very “adulty,” which means he loves making decisions, eliminating risks, and does not deal well with my contrasting inclination towards being an ostrich and sticking my head in the sand. It drives me batty at times, but if it hadn’t been for him, I would not be on this airplane.
Together with Phil and our new friend, Dr. D, we figured out a plan.
Chapter 7: The plan
While I managed to get back on an HMSA insurance plan, Dr. D made some calls to San Francisco. He knew a guy who could do my ablation – not just any guy.
One of the best. “A genius,” some have called him.
This Dr. Genius is busy, however. He would only be able to fit me in on a Friday...maybe. Due to upcoming travels planned months ago, I will be away for most of August, then jump right back into full-time teaching once back home. Not much time for recovery. Plus, I wanted to get this procedure done before damage is done to my heart structure over time.
By the time I looked at the calendar, it was July… and almost midway through… which left us with 2 Fridays to work with.
Just then, we received notice that we had been hired… (WAIT FOR IT)
…for a private gig in California to play music at a party for former wedding clients of ours…
pay + airfare included.
On Saturday, July 22nd .
Well, that means some good news & some bad news:
Airfare to California is taken care of!
But I can’t sing the day after a heart procedure. So that rules out Friday, July 21st
We only had 1 open day – Friday, July 28th.
It really was killing me, all the uncertainty & stress.
Then, I received word.
It could be done.
The 28th was a go.
I honestly couldn’t believe it at the time, even after we booked tickets & packed bags, so writing this on the plane was my way of coming to terms with reality. A digital “pinch me, am I dreaming?”
Chapter 8: Now
Tonight, I finish writing this reflection of all that has happened. In 12 hours I’ll be at my pre-operation appointments & the following day is the procedure.
I am in awe of all that has happened, with such timing and perfection, and the people that came into my life to make this all possible.
It truly is a miracle
I am overwhelmed with gratitude.
Many people ask me if I am worried about having heart surgery,
and while I won’t lie that I do feel a twinge of worry,
I know that I will be filled with as much gratitude and love the moment I go under anesthesia as the moment I wake up.