Last week, after 15 months of heart tests, I was finally given a thumbs-up. Everything is fine.
The fact that doctors thought there was something wrong with my heart was an enigma. In November 2017, days before I was running Nationals cross-country, an 8k distance, I was scheduled for a routine asthma test at the hospital. During one of the baseline tests, the respirologist stopped the test. “We can’t do it,” she said. “Your heart rate isn’t normal.”
I was completely dumbfounded. How was that even possible? At that point in 2017, I had logged almost 2000 miles for the year and I was racing fast enough to call myself a competitive runner.
How could I possibly have something wrong with my heart? But during the baseline test, my heart rate dropped (spiked down, as she said) so that it was dangerous to proceed with the test. After answering what felt like a gazillion questions (Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you workout? What do you do for exercise? and so on) and meeting with a cardiologist, they decided that it was safe for me to continue the asthma test. “It’s okay. There is a cardiologist next door if something goes wrong.”
Over the next 6 months, I had bloodwork, an echocardiogram, and an ultrasound of my heart. In simplest words, results showed that my outtake valve is thinner than my intake valve; the valves, by the way, are only 1mm thick, which I find absolutely remarkable. So running is good for me, but it meant that I needed to be monitored.
This past fall, at another asthma appointment with my respirologist, she asked whether I had been showing any symptoms? “Of what?” I asked. “I really don’t know what I am looking for.” My waking up and gasping for air in the middle of the night could be asthma-related, or it could be a symptom of a heart problem. So could the dizziness that I sometimes have during the day (which is likely attributed to a low heart rate). My doctor wanted to “cross the t’s and dot the i’s) so she referred me to a cardiologist.
Four weeks ago, I returned to the hospital for a stress test, which was about 6 minutes of testing surrounded by 4 hours of prep and waiting. During the test, they record a baseline of a heart rate, take images of the heart with an MRI, put you on a treadmill to walk or run until you’ve reached your maximum heart rate, and take more MRI images to compare. Since my hamstring tear meant that I couldn’t run or walk at a high elevation, and the doctors didn’t want to wait any longer, they used chemicals to simulate exercise.
Instead of putting me on a treadmill, one nurse injected me with a chemical to jump my heart rate and measured it while another nurse stood by, ready to jump into action if my heart rate escalated higher or faster than intended (basically, if I started to have a heart attack). The whole test was quite anti-climatic as the highest my heart rate got was 77 bpm. I sensed the disbelief from both as they removed the tubes and electrodes and asked “How are you feeling now? Are you dizzy at all? Does anything feel unusual? How is your vision?” Then, after another set of MRI images, I was sent home.
Three weeks later, I met with the cardiologist and, as I half-expected, everything is fine. The stress test squashed all concerns that the team of medical professionals, my GP, and my respirologist had, concerns that led to the recommendations of following through with all tests and, consequently, my own questions about my health . There were many days when I had doubts, I wondered how or why, and I worried. And let’s face it, with other aspects of my health not being ideal this year, there were some days when thoughts about my heart consumed me. Following through to crossing t’s and dotting i’s confirmed that I am indeed healthy and removed any fears that were there.
The question now is: what caused those spikes in the first place? The doctor couldn’t explain it. Sometimes, hormones in postmenopausal women can interfere with echocardiograms, he told me, and they can’t get proper readings. While he didn’t have a definitive answer, he did tell me that my cholesterol levels are excellent, there is no sign of a blockage and that I can keep doing what I am doing, that I can keep running, followed by “and, hopefully, it won’t be too much longer until you can.”
It feels good to finish this puzzle and put it back in the box. Now, I can focus on rehab for my hamstring and look forward to my appointment with the hip doctor in less than two weeks.