I don’t usually write personal stuff, but this one’s from the heart.
In late 2019, a friend of mine declared that 2020 would be “the year of perfect vision.” Clever, though we all know how that turned out. 2021 didn’t start any better. What with an insurrection, continued discord over vaccines, and emergence of the Omicron variant, perhaps the epithet should be “the year of perfect division.”
For me it was perfectly devastating. In late September, I was finally cleared for travel and made it to Spain to visit my daughter, and was able to bring my 89-year-old mother with me. But then my father died, and we all immediately headed to Florida. He was 93 and simply aged out. Died peacefully in his sleep, at home, with no pain. The way we all want to go. So on a conscious level, my grief process was manageable. As a student of Buddhism, I was ready to celebrate and assist his entry into the Bardo, the in-between state before he is reincarnated.
I went to the funeral home to view his body, and sat with him for the allotted 20 minutes. I thanked him for raising me, being so loving, and assured him that we were all excited to help him transition to his next incarnation. I felt closure. But the universe had other plans. That night in bed I went into atrial fibrillation (afib), a rapid, irregular heartbeat that refuses to abate. This was nothing new for me. I have endured a nearly two-decade battle with it. But since my third ablation in 2015— a procedure where they run a catheter through your artery and cauterize sections of your heart in order to form scar tissue that inhibits the errant electrical impulses from firing (that’s right, someone thinks this stuff up), I had been largely afib free. When these episodes occur you cannot relax. Your heart is palpitating too hard, and you are all too well aware that your blood is thickening, which could trigger a stroke. It’s an advanced state of anxiety I don’t wish on anyone.
Under normal circumstances, I convert to a sinus rhythm over time, sometimes with the help of meds. Or as a last resort by shocking my heart with a defibrillator (known as “cardio-verting”). This time the meds weren’t working. And after a couple days, I went to the hospital for that date with the defibrillator. But after the techs hooked me up to an EKG, I suddenly felt a whirl of activity around me, and an announcement over the PA came on to triage a possible heart attack victim. Wait, what?! They rushed me into OR, and before I was even sedated, I felt the jab in my groin as they inserted a catheter. This was not the outcome I was expecting.
But I woke to good news. No heart attack. Instead, they told me I was suffering from “Broken Heart Syndrome.” Yep, it’s a thing, discovered in Japan and named Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a weakening of the left ventricle. To the Japanese, the ventricle resembles an octopus (tako) trap, which I recognized from the sushi menu.
Well, that was a relief, but I was still in afib, and stayed that way the next several days, even though the doctors thought I would convert naturally. I never did, but needed to get discharged so I could conduct my father’s Zoom memorial service. We had 100 people online, my mom’s old computer kept crashing, and I had to orchestrate the affair and hold it together while my heart was racing 125 beats per minute. So back to the hospital I went and finally found relief with one zap to the ticker.
After a few more weeks helping my mother adjust to her new life, I made it home, determined to get at the root cause of this disorder. I knew that ablations were just attacking the symptom, not the cause, and I was determined to use California’s deep well of traditional and non-traditional medicine to solve the mystery and avoid a fourth ablation. I sought cardiologists, electro-physiologists, naturopaths, functional medicine doctors, and any protocols that treat the body as a whole system. I consulted Facebook afib support groups, an absolutely invaluable resource (if for no other reason than to know you’re not alone). I eliminated all known triggers—stimulants, alcohol, dehydration, stress, and in my case, carbohydrates. I got on a regimen of herbs and supplements—lots of magnesium, iodine, Vitamin C, and other stuff I can’t pronounce.
But then a month later the afib reared its ugly head again. It took a week of pleading until I could get in for a cardio-version again. I couldn’t go on like this, my only course being another ablation. Fourth time’s the charm, right? I got on the books for early January, but it got worse before it got better. Exactly one week after I got shocked into rhythm I was right back in afib once again. With just two weeks to go before my ablation, the doc suggested I live with it, because even if they shocked it, it would likely return again. And they wanted me to be in afib during the procedure so they could identify the trouble areas easier. But he’s never suffered through it, and could not possibly relate to the feeling of having your heart leaping out of your skin 24/7. So just before Christmas I went back to ER, and got shocked a third time in as many months. Ho Ho Ho!
Now not only did I need to stay afib free, I needed to stay COVID-19 free as well. If I tested positive they would postpone the procedure indefinitely. Maybe even cancel elective surgeries because of the surge. But I made it, thankfully. Last week, I had my ablation. Was I nervous? Not really. I was desperate. I simply had to trust the process and the outcome. And then I went under.
My doc thinks they got it. My recovery has been going well, in no small part because Laguna offers such potent medicine. I’ve been out for a few gingerly hikes already, marveling at the green hues and coastal sage scrub scents after the rains. I even got out on my kayak and inhaled the fresh, salty air. I still feel like the luckiest man on the planet. This is just a hiccup, a mid-course correction. A blessing in disguise.
The heart is just signaling an imbalance. It’s a resilient muscle. I’ll get to the root cause, clean it up, and you’ll have to endure my screeds longer than if I didn’t have any of this to begin with. As for 2022’s epithet, well, that’s easy for me. It’s not the year of perfect vision, or division. It’s the year of the perfect incision.
Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected].