Filed under: Issues | Tags: afib, atrial fibrillation, congenital, heart disease, paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, stopafib
I remember drinking five Diet Cokes that day, which was excessive caffeination even for me. I couldn’t sleep and it was 3 a.m. I watched re-runs of “Roseanne” on Nick-at-Nite in an effort to bore myself to sleep. Yet the longer I stayed awake, the more energized I felt. It was an insane adrenaline rush… and then the chest pains started. They weren’t scary as I thought they would be. More of a dull yet incredibly uncomfortable pain, kind of like a hamster on a rusty wheel in my chest. I decided to wake up my roommate and have her take me to the emergency room anyway.
That was my first bout of atrial fibrillation (afib), or as my friends first responded, “atrial what?” It was almost six years ago and that five days I spent in the cardiac ward was terrifying. I felt awful, like I had taken methamphetamines and gotten hit by a truck at the same time. The cardiologist kept saying, “She is so young! But she is so young!” and the heart monitor alarm kept going off and my closest family was hundreds of miles away. I thought I was going to die. I was so certain that I was going to die that I didn’t even call my mother. I didn’t know what to say.
Obviously, I was fine. Thankfully the amazing doctors determined that my afib was likely caused by my thyroid levels being off, at least that time, and immediately began to regulate it. Future episodes (oh, countless awful episodes) have proven that there’s something else going on to bring on my afib bouts. I quit caffeine cold turkey after the first episode. Was it stress? Was it alcohol? Was I dehydrated? It was only two years ago that I found out that I got this from my father, after he passed away from complications of procedure that was to fix it.
Enough sob story. What is afib? According to StopAfib.org:
Atrial fibrillation is a misfiring of the electrical signals of the heart that is characterized by heart palpitations, irregular heartbeat, and typically a fast heart rate. Afib comes on with little or no warning, and for no apparent reason, and can feel like having a flopping fish in the chest as the heart races and jumps uncontrollably.
According to the Mayo Clinic, more than five million Americans now suffer from atrial fibrillation, and by 2050 at least 16 million Americans will have afib as it overtakes aging Baby Boomers.
Once considered benign, this cardiac arrhythmia can double the risk of death and increase the risk of stroke five-fold. Afib is known to cause at least 15–20 percent of all strokes, and up to one-third of strokes of indeterminate origin are thought to be caused by atrial fibrillation. Stroke is the third most common cause of death in America and the number one cause of permanent disability.
I have what is known as paroxysmal atrial fibrillation, which essentially means that it’s like a ticking bomb. It can happen anytime, anywhere, no matter what I do. The bonus of that is I don’t have to live with afib all of the time. There are millions of people who suffered with afib and its side effects (awful headache, exhaustion, nausea), not to mention its terrible risks, on a daily basis. There are also many others who feel palpitations in their chests and discount it, never seeing a doctor or cardiologist, not realizing the risks that are associated with this frustrating disease.
The emotional side effects of living with paroxysmal afib are huge. Every time you pack a bag to travel, make a long-term plan, look forward to an event, or get ready for work you’re terrified that your plans are going to be destroyed due to an unexpected case of afib. You feel very isolated and scared because no one understands the disease. After dealing with a bout and (thankfully) getting better each time, your friends become desensitized. They don’t worry when you have chest pains anymore; it’s tantamount to a cold. Only on your end, every time is just as scary. Every time you worry that’s the time you’re going to have a clot or a stroke.
I am living proof that afib is not a death sentence by any means. I live a fairly normal life for a 35-year-old woman. I hang out with my friends, I travel, I exercise and I even have cocktails. I have to take a host of preventative medications, of course, and also have to do other things that are critical — take magnesium, stay hydrated, avoid caffeine and exhaustion. None of it is certain to help me avoid afib but it does help. And I hate this disease so much I will do almost anything to help avoid episodes.
The reason I am writing this emotional diatribe now is because September is Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month. To those people who have had palpitations or chest pain and sluffed it off as nothing, or just waited for it to go away, I urge you to consider calling your doctor next time. It may not be afib, but why take the risk? One of the goals of Afib Awareness Month is to help with early detection so afib-related strokes can be diminished. My hope is that if you didn’t know about afib before, now you do. And if you know someone with afib, please never get desensitized to the disease, because your friend who has it never can be.
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