Heart Talk

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I Resolve to Be Less Skeptical

By James Utt
By James Utt

My column is called “Heart Talk” because I make every effort to speak honestly, and hopefully, humorously, from my heart. Another reason is that for 25 years or so, heart ailments of one type or another have been a part of my life. Allow me to take you on a short journey through my atria and ventricles, and to a procedure I would have never dreamed of trying.

In the 1990s, sitting on the sofa, minding my own business, my heart suddenly started to beat wildly. Very fast and out of rhythm, I could see my tee shirt moving over my heart. After a few hours, my heart converted back to normal “sinus rhythm.” I began to see a cardiologist and he caught one of these episodes on an EKG. I had atrial fibrillation.

Thus, began an endless array of medications. Some might work for a few months, some for over a year, but none solved the problem. They only caused my condition to go from atrial fib to its cousin, atrial flutter, which still carried the same risk of stroke. Now, it was time for hospital visits.

Imagine your favorite medical show where the doctor grabs a paddle in each hand and says “clear” and shocks the heart. The heart stops for a second or two and resumes normal rhythm. Over the years I had five of these. Silver lining – the drugs they give you to induce a light sleep are pretty enjoyable.

Since these procedures had no long-lasting effect, the next step was to go to UCSD for a cardiac ablation. A four to six-hour procedure where long, flexible tubes are inserted through a vein in your groin, the doctor uses the tubes to transmit heat that destroys tissues that trigger irregular rhythm. Yeah, the groin. You are naked from the waist down, you have been shaved, the operating room is cold. “This better work,” I say to myself as the drugs knock me out.

Well, the first four did not. The fifth finally did. A nurse told me I probably now held the California record for ablations. I should have gotten a Letterman’s jacket.

Back in rhythm, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, I can play tennis again and then a new problem erupts. My ventricles, probably feeling neglected, began to have a condition called premature ventricular contractions. More strong drugs brought no relief. I could dull the feeling with enough scotch, but I didn’t think the medical community viewed this as an acceptable treatment.

A friend who swears by the effectiveness of acupuncture suggested I give it a try. She even called her acupuncturist and asked if she could treat my “P.V.C.s” She said she could.

Now, the trouble is I am an extreme rationalist. I don’t believe in ghosts, alien abductions, or the rapture. I do believe in Western medicine and am dubious of the powers of shamans and non-traditional ways of healing. Traditional Chinese medicine seemed to fall into this category. Then, I remembered a video I showed while teaching, about Chinese doctors using acupuncture with great success.

It all has to do with the flow of energy. By inserting needles into certain pathways or meridians, acupuncture practitioners believe that your energy flow will rebalance and health will return. Sounds a little out there, doesn’t it? But, what the hell? I did not want groin shave number six, so I decided to give it a try.

Lauren came to my house for the first treatment. She was reassuring, polite and explained what would happen over the next 40 minutes. It involved many more needles than I had anticipated but they were inserted painlessly. I kept my eyes closed because I am kind of a wuss and did not want to see needles, however tiny, sticking out of me. Peaceful music played and I drifted into a light sleep.

After three sessions, my P.V.C.s stopped. I have a treatment once a week as a kind of insurance policy. Score one for traditional Chinese medicine and the expertise of Lauren.

My cardiologists think it is either the placebo effect or the condition corrected on its own.

From my heart, I prefer to think otherwise. So, I resolve to be less skeptical of things I have not tried or know little about.


Truth be told, James Utt did not keep all of last year’s resolutions. He will really try to keep this one.

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