Battling Heart Disease – More Than A Survivor

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Heart disease doesn’t care if I’m on vacation – sometimes, it will decide to drop me like a sandbag when I least expect it.

Dave and I were readying ourselves for a difficult hike in Red Rocks, when out of nowhere, my heart decided it had different intentions. I was putting my hair in a ponytail when I walked into the hallway where he was putting his camera bag together and I said to him, “Dave, I’m really light headed…. the thing that happened to me in the park is happening again”. This was in reference to a pretty bad episode I had months earlier in a park that caused me to almost black out; it was happening again. I sat on the bed, my head starting to nod off and I put my finger to my carotid artery for a pulse; “lub dub…….. lub dub………lub.. dub”. My heart rate was beginning to slow to a dangerous level, so I lay flat on the ground while continuing to check my pulse. Finally, it began to enter a high rhythm, which means it was attempting to correct the problem. As I sat up, knowing the ordeal was over, I began to cry. He comforted me, held me close and let me cry. “Why is my heart always trying to kill me?”. I remember wanting to just throw a pillow at the wall in that moment, because I was just “done”. I’m fighting for my life every day, and these incidents still break me, causing my PTSD to flair and put me back into the most difficult moments of my life. After a few minutes, I told Dave that I was ready to leave, because I knew I needed to hike. I was anxious, didn’t feel “normal”, but I knew this was the only way to get back to myself.

As we hiked in the sun, my body was completely drained within a couple minutes. I just wanted to stop. Why didn’t I? I wanted to see that hike. I wanted to see what was at the end, and experience life. I played with the GoPro along the way, and even joked in the recording that the worst part of my morning was actually getting the voice command prompts to work. If any of you have ever used the voice activation on a GoPro, I’m sure you are fully aware that if you speak with natural pauses, the GoPro will not start or stop recording. I am that person who talks to the GoPro as if it is a real person. For example, “GoPro……. Stop recording”. I’m pretty sure Dave kept reminding me, “Molly, don’t use a comma when you talk to the GoPro!” (We kind of have the best time together!) The best thing about being a cardiac patient is that we learn to laugh in the face of our disease. We have to, otherwise we would never smile again. We made it through as much of the hike as we could before the sun was just too much for both of us. We took a break out of the sun for a little while, and headed back out to Red Rocks for some evening bouldering. There is nothing more amazing than climbing at sunset, and continuing in the darkness. It’s peaceful. I really just kind of let go out there, focused on my love of climbing, and got through my earlier ordeal.

We climbed the next morning, rested during the hottest part of the day, and went back out at sunset. Once again, I had the best time of my life out there. Getting back to the hotel and settling in, we looked at photos from the trip up to this point, talked about our favorite parts and went to bed. However, for me, something was wrong. As I tried to sleep, something kept me awake, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Within a couple hours, my heart was racing; 150 beats per minute. I tried breathing exercises and calming techniques. Nothing worked. I got up to drink water, and immediately turned around, because a huge fear came over me; What if I died alone in this bathroom because I didn’t get help? I knew my arrhythmia was dangerous, but was so stuck on wanting to deal with it alone. I made the decision to wake Dave up out of bed and let him know my heart rate was out of control. He stayed up with me, put his arms around me, and rubbed my back. Every few minutes, I would check my heart rate. 120. A few minutes later…. 110…. Then 90, which is where it stayed for a while. Finally, 3 hours later, it was back to 78 bpm. I broke down again, admitting to Dave that I was scared I was going to die alone in that room. I was scared that this time, this arrhythmia was going to end my life. I hated that feeling of not having control. In just one week, two cardiac events occurred when I least expected it. You know what I did after crying for a while? I went to sleep, woke up, and went on another hike in the morning around Red Rocks. We looked at all the boulders we needed to climb, and made a plan of attack for the next time we are there.

This is life, and even through the bumps and pain of heart disease, it is worth living. I often hear the term “survivor” when related to heart disease. A heart disease survivor. I want to be more than a survivor – I want to live. So, every day, when my heart knocks me down, I take the punch, mourn the pain, then return to life and do the things that set my soul on fire. I’m climbing for my life, and using this sport to experience the world. If I never got up off the ground to face my fears, I would not be here today.

This message is for all of you who are simply surviving your disease; let go. Let go of your fears, anger, and resentment. Stop putting on fake smiles, and telling people you are okay. Show your internal wounds from battling a relentless disease, then do something that makes you uncomfortable, yet completely passionate about life. And in that moment, when you realize you are somewhere better than on the floor in your own pain and tears, soak it up and memorize that feeling. Let it be the stoke that keeps you going and transforms you from a survivor, to someone who truly lives.

Much love to you all,

Molly Hemphill

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