I Cheat Death … defying the odds

IMG_5684“If the heart stops for more than two minutes, you have massive brain death. There are only two minutes between our conscious world and zero. That’s how fragile our consciousness is.”
~ Robin Gibb

Life can easily become a blur. Years, even days, slide past us way too fast. It’s that much more apparent when life is suddenly interrupted by a health crisis. Last month I wrote a blog about throwing in the towel and I posed the question: “If I could make-over my life, what would I change?” I encouraged readers to be more present with loved ones. “Don’t blink or life and its blessings will pass you by,” I said. Then, right in the midst of that blog posting, my husband’s life took a drastic turn in an episode of near sudden death.

According to The American Heart Association, “about 424,000 people experience sudden cardiac [arrest] in the United States per year, and only about 5% survive.” Movies often portray a middle-aged adult having chest pain, arm or back pain and then suddenly collapsing.  Yet, severe heart failure occurs in people of all ages, including apparently healthy children.  Defying the odds begins inside the two-minute window emulated by Robin Gibb.

When the sudden racing heartbeat and waves of near passing out wouldn’t quit, we blurted out in unison “it’s time to go to the hospital.” Take the five-minute drive or wait on EMS for 20 minutes … of course we opted for five because my husband was still able to walk. We had no idea that Chuck was actually a “dead man walking,” until after being admitted. He had no pain and didn’t lose consciousness. The guys at work (later) confessed that they would have been “pig-headed and toughed it out.” As we found out, even if you defy the onset of a heart attack or stroke it doesn’t mean you defy the possibility of sudden cardiac death.

Underneath that picture of health was a weakened heart struggling to pump. There was much more to the managed high blood pressure and decades of skipping beats. My 57-year-old, always busy, surfer dude husband’s situation mimicked the athletes annually who experience (rare) sudden death due to underlying and undiagnosed cardiac conditions.

When the heart contains regions of dead tissue it cannot properly conduct the electrical current, resulting in mistiming and localization of the electrical signal, which can result in a fatal arrhythmia. Underlying causes, like viruses that infiltrate the heart are sometimes to blame. The electrical activity becomes chaotic — something like this…
12-lead in polymorphic VT-later

The Healthline Networks reported that “viruses can affect the heart, just like any other part of the body. Most of the time, the body will heal itself and you may never know you had a problem. However, in rare cases such as with athlete Kelli McGregor, the resulting inflammation can permanently damage and weaken the heart, leading to heart failure and/or heart rhythm irregularities” — a condition called Myocarditis.

We may never know the details of myocarditis or other anomaly that weakened my medtronic_D_20091124132825husband’s heart muscle. We do know that weakening along with ventricular tachycardia (VT) put him at increased risk for “sudden cardiac death” (SCD), which led to a regime of medications and an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator (ICD). More specifically, VT is a rapid heart beat arising from improper electrical activity in the ventricles; the most common cause of sudden cardiac death in the United States. We affectionately dubbed the ICD an “I Cheat Death” device. The New York Times reported that an estimated 100,000 people receive an ICD every year.  While an ICD does not change underlying conditions, it can help prevent sudden cardiac arrest.

I don’t believe anyone really cheats death, but there are certainly chances to improve quality of life, in the time we’re gifted. Take action when warning signs present themselves. Regular check-ups are important, yet may miss underlying conditions. When something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not … pay attention to the subtleties. Timing is everything. I’m thankful my husband didn’t surf that day. I’m thankful we weren’t on a plane in different directions (this week’s projected travel plan!).  I’m thankful for our children, and all the family and friends for the abundance of love, kindness, support, and prayers!

We thank God for the outstanding care of Doctors Borganelli, Powell and Novak, the nurses and techs on the PCU (Progressive Care Unit), and all the team at Fort Walton Beach Medical Center. We are grateful for doctors with an insatiable desire for teaching — a cardiac-electrophysiologist, Dr. Borganelli, pursued test after test to get at the root cause for a failing heart in such a “healthy” person. Filling up one dry-erase board after another, he reported back to magnify our understanding and discern the best course ahead. Having only joined our nearby medical center a few months ago you might say our luck would have it … better yet, it was beautiful divine timing.  Timing is everything. Thankfully, it wasn’t my husband time. We’ve been given the opportunity to “make-over” our lives. We won’t let that blessing fade along this healing journey.


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