I never expected to top off a celebratory birthday dinner with a visit to the Emergency Room (E.R.), a visit I had avoided for almost five years. But when I was walking to our car with my husband, and my heart began to beat quickly and irregularly, I knew I was going to have to go there. As I laid in the E.R. gurney I wondered whether I had waited too long. Was I having a heart attack? Would they be able to save me? When they finished the tests the E.R. doctor told me my heart was going back into sinus (regular) rhythm. What I had experienced was paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (A Fib), an unpredictable irregular heartbeat that can cause further heart problems or a stroke. Luckily, this A Fib incident passed without intervention. How I most likely got this condition is what I want to share in this blog, hoping it will help you, or someone you know to avoid a similar or worse situation.
I have written frequently about the heart of a woman and its ability to both contain and express vast emotions. February is American Heart Month so that inspired me to share with you my own very personal story about heart health, the ways you can lose it and the ways you can keep it. Heart disease is currently the leading cause of death among women globally. One out of every three deaths among women in the United States is from cardiovascular disease. For about five years out of the last decade I was in danger of becoming one of those fatalities. And, as much as I study health, I was ignorant about that risk.
Ten years ago, I began to have terrifying nighttime experiences. I would awaken at about two or three in the morning with my heart racing, feeling dizzy and scared. I would consider the emergency room but try to hold out to see if I could calm myself without going there. I could get myself under control, after about two hours spent drinking herbal tea, watching whatever old comedy I could find on television, sometimes taking a shower. Occasionally I would wake my husband, but he works long and hard as a psychiatrist, so I would try not to. When I did, he would take my pulse and suggest I was having a panic attack and that it would pass. He taught me the breathing techniques to help. Eventually the episode would end, and I’d be able to return to sleep.
This did not happen frequently, maybe a couple times the first year; three, the second; and then four times the next year. It would happen when I had no reason for panic, even once on a vacation. After a couple of these episodes I went to a cardiologist and he agreed they were panic attacks. Each time this happened I would be exhausted, for ever-lengthening periods of time afterwards. After one attack that left me worn out for most of a week, I decided to go to a female cardiologist I had seen once before. When I told her what was happening to me she said, “I don’t think you have a heart problem, I think you have a sleep problem.”
She sent me for a sleep study and the day after I had it, one of her friends who is a top sleep doctor in Philadelphia phoned personally and asked me to come to her office first thing the next morning. The study showed I had severe sleep apnea. Sometimes the oxygen in my body dipped as low as seventy percent. No wonder I woke up in panic! My body knew it was fighting to stay alive.
Before this I had only tangentially heard of sleep apnea from some acquaintances who had talked about having to travel with some machine to help them at night. I got fitted for that machine, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device that day and I have used it religiously every night since. Since I have done so, I no longer wake up at night in a panic.
Now what does this have to do with heart health? Undiagnosed and untreated sleep apnea had affected my heart which I discovered in the emergency room after that birthday dinner. As soon as I got that diagnosis I went back to my cardiologist and she has been able to help me control my atrial fibrillation with medication, and not the herbal kind.
After a time using my CPAP, the machine, which has a computer the sleep doctor can check, reported I was still having some sleep incidents. I was given a more sensitive device to control sleep apnea called a Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure (BiPAP) machine. For the past four years I have slept well knowing that this miraculous machine is helping me to sleep safely. My BiPAP has traveled with me to France, Taiwan, China, and various parts of the United States. Yes, it is clunky. Yes, it took me a while to get a mask that was comfortable. I went through four types before I found one that worked for me. Yes, the mask makes me feel like a Darth Vader wannabe. But that is a small price to pay for life.
I get really riled when I see CPAPs portrayed in the media as devices only used by obese, old, grumpy, nasty human beings. Such portrayals could discourage some people from seeking out and using the help of these lifesaving devices. The stereotypes about people with sleep apnea are very misleading. I had a friend who was in her sixties and enjoyed working out at the gym and doing salsa dancing several times a week. She had a CPAP but refused to use it because she found her mask uncomfortable, and she said it made her feel older. Sadly, that refusal proved fatal. I wish I had known what I do now so I would have nagged her until she went and got a comfortable mask. Since then I have badgered at least two friends into getting new masks and using their CPAPs.
Sleep apnea can affect young people. I have known several women in their thirties and forties who suffered from it. My webmaster had a friend in his thirties who took a nap without his CPAP. He never woke up.
Having studied and worked with many types of healing over the years I have come to recognize that holistic healing draws from the best available methods for each person and each illness, and that includes Western medicine. I say my morning prayers and bless everything and everyone who has helped my life, including that wonderful cardiologist and sleep doctor, and that machine that keeps my body full of oxygen as I enjoy the gift of restorative sleep. I also pray that sharing the lessons I have learned can help others to have fuller, happier, healthier lives. I don’t stop with praying. I talk to my physicians and physician friends about my experience. Many of them have become much more conscious about prescribing sleep studies for patients with nighttime problems. Doctors know not all such problems come from sleep apnea. Panic attacks are very real and can happen at night, and there are other causes of sleep disturbances. It takes a doc and a sleep study to make a definite diagnosis.
Not all nighttime problems come from sleep apnea. Panic attacks are very real and can happen at night. If sleep apnea is diagnosed early, and treated, it can keep you from developing heart and other problems. If you have problems sleeping, or if your bedmate accuses you of serious snoring or being restless, talk to your doctor about this. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea, take it seriously. Use your CPAP as directed. That funny looking mask could save your life, as it did (and does) mine.