I WRITE THIS ON THE EVE OF MY 45TH BIRTHDAY…approximately 7 years ago, I experienced a life-changing event. I had caught a wicked strain of the flu. I felt awful…I was weak. I figured like most flu cases, it would just pass with time, hydration and rest. I left work early that day after extracting several teeth and performing a root canal therapy procedure. I ate lunch, then went to bed. I slept for 12 hours. I went with my Son and his school (along with my medical kit) to the Schermerhorn Symphony in Nashville for a field trip. I walked up five flights of stairs, effortlessly. After the field trip, I took my Son shopping and went home.
I awoke the next day to find that my flu symptoms had worsened. I felt like I couldn’t get in gear. I was sweaty and felt chills. When I sat down and leaned forward, I could feel the apex of my heart impacting the backside of my sternum. I sat there on the steps of our home, and thought through ALL of my medical training, from EMT through my Doctorate, and I couldn’t surmise what was happening to me. My heart rate was fast and irregular. I didn’t feel right. I concluded that the best thing to do was to get to the closest ER to me.
I drove to the hospital. By the time I got there, I needed help from my Son to walk across the ER parking lot. I walked and told the Triage Nurse, “HI. I’m Dr. Sherman A. House, and I need you to code me please.” She could tell that I was serious, and she promptly scooped me up with a wheelchair, and rushed me to the back. Years of experience of working in the ER as a member of the team doesn’t prepare you for the role reversal of becoming an emergency patient. I was instantly annoyed. Not scared though…just disappointed. The ER physician told me that I was in atrial fibrillation with an atrial rate in the high 300’s and that they would need to sedate me to perform what I know to be a SYNCHRONIZED CARDIOVERSION would take place. The team would use a defibrillator to deliver a 200 joule shock to my heart to, “reset,” the misfiring fibres and cells that were causing this arrhythmia. Moments later, I was given drugs that limited my perception and ability to do anything. I awoke a few minutes later to find both my cardiologist and an ultrasound technologist in my darkened room. James Yeager had also arrived to help me tie up loose ends. The cardiologist told me that in addition to being in atrial fibrillation, I also had a blood clot about the size of a sugar cube that was spinning around inside of my left atria, and that my left ventricle wasn’t working. Also, I had severely diminished lung function from the backup of fluid that had filled all lobes of my lungs, and my kidneys were not working as effectively from the overwork. He told me that if my condition didn’t improve, I wouldn’t be expected to survive without a miracle. I looked at James Yeager and said, “WELL SHIT…”
Later that afternoon, they moved me from the ER to the cardiac ICU. One of the nurses came in with a Foley catheter kit (a tube which is placed through the penis into the bladder to allow urine to effortlessly escape without having to got to a bathroom to void) and I told her GET AWAY FROM ME WITH THAT. She told me that she’d seen them all before and there was nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed of. I told her that the last thing I wanted/needed was ANOTHER infection in my body (catheters in hospitals cause infections all the time…google, “nosocomial infection,” for more info) and that I would walk to the restroom when I needed to, thank you very much! She then told me that the Doctor had ordered diuretics for me to get in large doses, to help eliminate the excess fluid that had collected in my lungs. I told her that was quite fine, and as long as I could walk, I wasn’t going to die. She reluctantly agreed and let me be…and as the days rolled on, and my walks around the room and the ICU increased in frequency and duration, I eventually recovered enough to go home.
The next three years consisted of innumerable trips to a team of cardiologists, daily regimens of six, twice daily medications, and several emergency room visits and hospital stays when my heart would get out of rhythm. In November of 2015, after another emergency cardioversion visit (I had five cardioversion therapies in total) my electrophysiologist told me that he would continue to do this as needed, but there would probably be a time when it would no longer be effective, and the arrhythmia would no longer respond to the electrical shock. He recommended a procedure called ABLATION, where he would use both cryotherapy and rF radiation to burn the aberrant Purkinje Fibres that were responsible for my lingering issues (at that point, the cardiomyopathy had resolved and was still being followed). I didn’t want to end up in the hospital every six months, so I did it.
I stepped up my fitness and diet game. I followed my doctor’s order to the letter. Every six month follow up resulted in my medication dosages being reduced. I walked everywhere I could. I walked in the mall and around my office on my lunch breaks. I did everything possible to walk as far as possible (much to my wife’s chagrin) as she doesn’t like to park in the far outreaches of the supermarket parking lot, and I would train at various HIIT gyms around our home. Each follow up appointment showed continued improvement…up until today. Today, was my six month follow up and my cardiologist agreed that I was in fine shape, and that although he was scared to try Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he supported my participation in it, and that he was excited to see what I could do WITHOUT the effects of my last remaining drug (a beta blocker).
If you’ve never taken a beta blocker before, imagine this…when you workout, you can’t get your heart rate over about 130. When you do, you feel your heart beat very deeply, and after a few deep breaths, it slows back down. At a movie like, “THE CONJURING 2,” when there is a jump-scare, you don’t jump nor do you get scared! You feel nothing…like your sympathetic nervous system (the portion of our autonomic nervous system responsible for our, “FIGHT OR FLIGHT,” capability, along with numerous other functions that run silently, “in the background,” of our amazing physiology) has been disengaged from your body. While this is helpful for public speaking, golfing and competitive shooting, it isn’t great for everyday life. It doesn’t help with rugby, or Jiu-Jitsu. You don’t enjoy the benefits of, “explosive athletic power,” because your capability to utilize adrenaline as it was intended is shut off. You do not recover from injuries normally (it is delayed) and you do not lose certain areas of fat, as those areas are responsive only to adrenaline-mediated pathways for utilization and breakdown. So you enjoy a life that is deprived of many great things, and you must make adaptions to get a semblance of normalcy.
You can achieve what you want, to beat, “your,” diagnosis, and get to a point in your health that is where you want it to be. I told James Yeager when this happened that, “If I survive the next ten years, medical science will have accelerated to the point where it will help me recover fully.” Medical science, in the Western world, unfortunately doesn’t usually work to CURE illness…it simply treats symptoms. That’s one of the things I love about my chosen niche of the medical profession; I definitively treat diseases of the teeth, often by removing the source of the problem, THE TOOTH ITSELF! With heart issues, the treatment isn’t so literal and simple. I can’t just rip my heart out or replace it, without acquiring a whole new set of issues and maladies. If you lead a reasonably healthy life, you can heal your damaged tissues. This was my only avenue to get back to a, “normal,” DRUG FREE lifestyle. I hate being tied to a bag of pills. I hate the feeling of being the youngest guy in the heart failure clinic. I hate being the young guy with tattoos that everyone looks at and thinks, “HE MUST HAVE WRECKED HIS LIFE WITH METH!” No Ma’am…I got here from doing my job; rendering aid to the sick and injured.
So be smart! Wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your mouth, and don’t touch anyone else’s with your bare hands. Steer clear of people with the flu, and keep your body healthy. For those of you that work in dentistry and/or the medical field, reschedule patients that are experiencing life-threatening conditions. It sounds silly to say, “treat your body like a temple,” but your skin suit will only get you as far as you allow it to. Treat it like a beat-up used car and that is the kind of performance it will deliver to you. Treat it like a, “vintage” high mileage but very cared for vehicle, and it will CONTINUE to provide years of trouble-free service.