Monday, April 13, 2009

I love my heart

It’s amazing. I have, especially of late, always been acutely aware of the beating heart within my chest.

But until I saw it on an ultrasound screen on April 2nd, I never truly made a connection with it. I lay on the gurney next to the ultrasound machine, electrodes all over my chest and abdomen. I felt warm goo and slight discomfort as the ultrasound probe jabbed my ribs. The technician adjusted the monitor so I could see it. On the screen, in black and white and gray, was my beating heart.

“And this,” the technician said, “is your heart.”

The technician focused on my mitral valve. It billowed open and shut, open and shut. Although I was at rest, the heart’s pulsing was so rapid that I marveled at how it must look during exercise, during my runs.

After the initial ultrasound I had to walk, and then jog, on a treadmill. They were hoping to get my heart rate up to 192. After the maximum heart rate--or as close as they could get--had been reached, the treadmill would abruptly stop and I was to immediately lay back down on the gurney so the technician could ultrasound my heart again.

Honestly, that was probably the most difficult run I have ever done. I had running pants and shoes on but nothing on top except for the zillions of electrodes and a hospital gown. A huge tangle of wires connected me to various machines. The treadmill was narrow and short, with handlebars on one side and in the front. The room seemed so small and claustrophobic. Suddenly, falling off the treadmill was a real threat.

“I hope I don’t fall off this thing!” I said.

“You won’t—no one has fallen yet!” the younger technician said. I recalled what they had told me—that they were not used to young, healthy patients in the room.

“Well, it would be ironic if I was the first,” I said. They laughed. I gripped both handlebars tightly. I knew it would make running even more difficult but I was so sure I would fall off the treadmill without holding on.

(As a result of my hearing loss, my balance isn't the best. My center of balance can easily become disorientated. I am a klutz!)

The younger technician set the treadmill at an ever-increasing incline and pace. As I walked, then ran, she periodically took my blood pressure. A large screen with squiggly lines tracked my heartbeat and displayed my heart rate. After fifteen minutes of this torture (of which the only bright side was the fact that my calf was not hurting at all), my heart rate was at 179.

As planned, the treadmill stopped abruptly and I laid back on the gurney, doing my best to not trip up in the trillions of wires around my torso and legs.

More warm goo. The uncomfortable probe. Suddenly my heart was there, pounding clearly and furiously on the ultrasound screen. I waited for it to palpitate.

Laying there, waiting and watching the mitral valve billow open and shut at a dizzying pace, I realized that my heart would not abruptly stop on me as I had once worried. I realized that this incredible, truly involuntary organ was always working, always beating. As I slept, as I ate, as I watched television, as I ran, as I groomed Limerick, as I read, as I swam under water, lungs held tight with air, as I held my husband’s hand, my heart was beating. No matter what I was doing, it was beating.

And right there, I suddenly fell in love with my heart.

Sure, it will palpitate. Its beating will plunge if I run then stop. It will skip or add beats. It may even hurt. But it is doing none of these things on purpose. It is how it is—mitral valve prolapse and all. I regretted the years I spent smoking. I regretted the bad food I ate in college. I regretted the years I didn’t exercise as much as I should have. I regretted everything that could have hurt it.

My heart may not be perfect, but it is there for me. And it’s up to me to be there for it.

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