Congenital Heart Disease and Making 86,400 Seconds Count

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Each day, we are given 86,400 seconds. Heart disease patients are fully aware that this time is not guaranteed for us; we learn to stretch seconds and compartmentalize them into moments. But what happens when 300 seconds turns into a terrifying medical ordeal? Does it give us the right to throw away the remaining seconds left in our day? How long are we allowed to mourn?

Due to the amazing weather this week in Oregon, my boyfriend and I have been running after work; two straight days in a row. Both days we ran 3 miles, paced ourselves and enjoyed that the weather was finally nice enough for us to get our cardiovascular system moving like this again. Yesterday, I felt slightly off while running. About three quarters of the way through our run, I mentioned that my heart felt “weird”, but that everything was okay. Well, I didn’t say okay, I really said, “I think it will be fine”. Back story, we don’t use the “F-word” in our relationship; you know, “fine”. That is a word we strike from our vocabulary, as it never has positive connotations. I quickly back peddled and stated, “Not fine. I really mean okay. I’m okay”. As we have always done at the end of our run, we sat on the tailgate of his GMC, drinking water and throwing positive vibes at one another about the great run we just had. As I sat there, my heart just didn’t feel settled. I quickly popped up onto my feet, continued drinking water and said, “Hey, let’s head back to your place for dinner”. I knew something was about to happen with my heart, as the beating in my chest just didn’t feel right.

About five minutes into my drive, it happened. My chest began to tighten, my breathing labored. As I pulled my sports bra from my chest to allow for freedom from restriction, my arrhythmia started. Thump… thump……….THUMP. My heart rate was irregular, my chest hurt and my resting heart rate was too fast for me to count. Each beat in my heart was unbearable and I immediately went into “emergency mode”. I breathed slowly, pulled myself together and called my boyfriend. “I am headed to my house to pick up my emergency medication. I am having an arrhythmia right now. Can you follow me home?”, I asked him. Those 300 seconds felt like 5,000. All I could do was remain calm and attempt to get myself home in time to get the medication I needed to put my heart back into a normal rhythm. Before I could get home, just as suddenly as it began, my arrhythmia stopped. I jumped back on the phone with my boyfriend, let him know I would meet him at his place for dinner, and that I was okay. My daily calcium channel blocker did what it was supposed to do and stopped my arrhythmia. I was going to be okay.

Upon realizing I was okay, my initial reaction was to just release my emotions and cry. What you might not realize is that heart patients are strong. We must keep our emotions together in an emergency to not only care for ourselves, but to help others around us remain calm. Once my storm was over, I knew it was safe to just allow myself to feel. As I sat in traffic sobbing, I couldn’t wait to just get to my boyfriend to make sure he was okay and get on with my evening. Being with a cardiac patient is new to him, and I find myself always reassuring him that everything is okay. I am independent and self-reliant, so I have an ability to care for myself when hiccups occur with my heart. What may be “normal” for me to experience, is going to be foreign for him. I wanted to get all my tears out of the way before I got to his place, as to not scare him or add unnecessary stress.  The most amazing pieces of our relationship come from honesty, openness, communication and vulnerability. Withholding any piece of myself, including emotional burdens, would be robbing him of his right to connect with me. We are where we are today because we love one another enough to be raw and real. With that said, I let him see me cry, assured him I was okay, and allowed him to just wrap me up in his arms. I won’t lie; I broke down more, crying and sobbing, because I was still scared. Nothing ever prepares me for an arrhythmia. It doesn’t matter how many I have had in the past. Each one is a very different experience and comes with its own fears. Being held by him gave me the strength to wipe the tears from my eyes and smile. At that moment, I decided that enough seconds out of my day had been spent in fear from my experience. I still had the entire evening ahead of me, consisting of thousands of seconds that needed to be filled with laughter and joy.

What is the point of this story, you ask? Simple; don’t waste any of your seconds in fear and potentially robbing you from connecting with the people who love you the most. Don’t waste these precious seconds worried about the next arrhythmia or whatever is going on in your life. Find the strength to take those precious seconds and fill them with joy, laughter and love for life. For years, I lived in fear of my illness and upcoming surgeries. I was too afraid to live, but scared to die. That time in darkness led me to the appreciation I have for life and everyone who chooses to walk this path with me. I embrace those 86,400 seconds I wake up with each morning, and don’t take any of them for granted. I spend time with those I love, get outdoors, rock climb, and push myself harder physically than I probably should. For those of you who see photos of me rock climbing and think that I am not experiencing the pain and fear you are experiencing are wrong. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about my heart and worry about something going wrong. The difference is that living life with joy far supersedes any fear I have with my health. My goal is to encourage each of you heart warriors to find adventure on a weekly basis. I want you all to see that I’m not an exception-case, but someone who fights every day to take advantage of every heartbeat; every second. For those of you struggling, please reach out and come with me on an adventure. I want to show you a life without constant fear. Whether you are interested in rock climbing, hiking or running, I would love to help you get started! Us Heart Disease Warriors will always have our medical hiccups, but we can push through and find calm in the storm.

This evening in Portland, my boyfriend and I have the amazing opportunity to attend of viewing of Chris Burkard’s newest film, “Under An Arctic Sky”. If there is an adventure photographer that can create a stoke for life through his experiences, this is the guy! How will you spend your 86,400 seconds today?

Best,

Molly Hemphill

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