I was having dinner with friends one evening when I felt a numbness in my chest. I thought maybe it was from something spicy I had eaten, so I excused myself from the table and walked to the bathroom. I splashed water on my face and paced in the stall, hoping the feeling would go away. But it just got worse, spreading from my chest to my left arm. My hands grew cold and clammy.
I went to the hospital later that night, and found out that my blood pressure was unusually high: 160/90. She asked me to return the following morning for a laboratory tests, including a blood test. I, of course, didn’t go back.
I’ve always felt like I could take care of my health on my own, just by eating properly and getting plenty of exercise. I’m stubborn too, which I inherited from my parents. I’ve watched my mother drag herself into work for a 12-hour shift for the seventh day in a row, when most people would have been bedridden. My father didn’t like to go to the doctor either.
A few weeks before he died when I was 10, we were playing catch in front of our house when I hit accidentally him in the thigh with a baseball. A bruise that should have been the size of a golf ball swelled to the size of a grapefruit. He promised he’d get it checked out but kept putting off making an appointment. He didn’t realize it at the time, but his blood wasn’t clotting like it was supposed to. He finally made an appointment for a Tuesday. He suffered an abdominal aneurysm two days before the scheduled appointment, and died on a Sunday.
Soon after I went to the hospital, I began feeling worse but didn’t tell anyone. Sometimes my heart would begin beating fast, even when resting in bed. I googled “heart palpitations” and read accounts from people who had suffered similar symptoms.
One of the great things about the Internet is that an anonymous virtual support group is always a few clicks away. Scared of heights or mice? There’s an online forum for you. The downside is there’s no way to tell whether Debbie1978 in Los Alamos, New Mexico, is being honest her condition or hiding the fact that her meth habit and husband’s philandering are making her heart race at night.
I did the worst thing possible and tried to diagnose my condition by entering my symptoms into an online medical dictionary. I found out that people with diabetes can experience heart palpitations. My grandfather had diabetes. I’ve never been tested, but I’ve been pissing a lot more at night, I thought. Diabetics piss a lot. Shit. Maybe I’m drinking too much caffeine? That can cause it too. But so can an enlarged heart. Or too much stress at work. That 15 pounds I put on since moving to China can’t be helping either.
I tried to stop thinking about the palpitations, and for a few months it worked. Then one night after dinner, the numbness returned. I became dizzy and felt faint. My blood pressure was even higher this time, 170/100. I went back to the hospital, and the doctor suggested I wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours to see how my heart rate fluctuated throughout the day. She also attached electronic patches to my chest, to determine whether my heartbeat had any irregularities.
The tests revealed that I had high blood pressure, and the doctor said I had Stage 2 hypertension. She recommended that I take medicine to lower blood pressure … for the rest of my life. Can’t I just try to eat healthy and cut back on drinking alcohol and salty foods? Nope, you need the medication, she said. What about exercise and weight loss, can’t that make a difference? Yes, but you still need the medication.
I’m 32, have always been in decent shape and eaten a reasonably healthy diet. Her insistence that I take drugs to lower my blood pressure and stay on them for the rest of my life struck me as odd.
Seeking a second opinion, I sent the results of my blood pressure tests to my uncle, a heart surgeon. Given my age and medical history, he suggested I first reduce my salt and alcohol intake and keep exercising. But, he added, “If it has lowered it measurably wait another six weeks and have it checked again. If it isn’t reduced significantly, then you will have to consider medication.”
Six weeks have passed, and I’ve lost almost 10 pounds. I’ve been exercising almost every day. I’ve traded my usual midnight snack of a bag of Lays potato chips and two cans of Tsingtao for a cup of yogurt and a glass of decaffeinated tea. My dress pants fit again, and I no longer have to wear the same pair of ragged jeans with a hole in the crotch every time I go out.
The heart palpitations have all but disappeared, but I still haven’t returned to the hospital for a follow-up. There are just some habits that die hard.