Atrial fibrillation. Or more familiarly, “AFib,” which sounds more domesticated, almost a pet name. So, AFib: have it, don’t want it, not sure how much I’ll be able to do about it.
It began, of all days, on Easter. All through the family get-together, and throughout the long night, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest: slowing down, speeding up, missing beats altogether then stumbling as if to catch up. At one point, as I lay in bed, my heart started spinning down, as if running on a depleted battery. Then it stopped. One second. Two. For those endless moments, I thought I was dying — or dreaming of death and clawing my way to wakefulness. Then, suddenly, my heart leapt back to life, skipping to its broken beat, and the nightmare was over.
In the morning, I drove myself down to the ER. They hooked me up, wired me up, scanned and monitored and poked and prodded. Nothing. It was like one of those frustrating and fruitless trips to the mechanic: the car stops making the strange noise just as you arrive. But the nurse was very understanding. “We believe you,” she said reassuringly as she smiled and patted my arm.
I must have had that no-really-I’m-not-faking-it look on my face: I’m not a malingerer! Subsequent visits to cardiologists have confirmed that I have a problem, a real one. But I must confess, sometimes I feel like a malingerer. “AFib.” Even the name suggests it: a little lie, a bit of fakery or exaggeration. No, really! My heart was doing that flip-flop thing just a second ago!
My friends and colleagues are generous of spirit. The problem is, I have difficulty accepting compassion for an invisible malady. The symptoms are sporadic and not life threatening, and I’m the only one who knows that they’re happening: the thumping and fluttering, the occasional feeling of faintness, the slight shortness of breath. To some extent, the symptoms have become routine. They disturb my sleep, and the medications add to my fatigue. But I can live with that. My cardiac electrophysiologist (mere months ago, I didn’t even know such a profession existed) even said it directly in our first meeting: “You’re not going to die from this, ever.”
Well, stroke, maybe. But not death, not directly.
By the numbers: a 2001 study estimated that 2.3 million adults in the U.S. have AFib; that number is projected to balloon to 5.6 million by 2050. AFib increases the chance of stroke five-fold, because the irregular rhythm can allow blood to pool and clot; without some other form of treatment, I will be on anti-coagulant medication the rest of my life.
The public health concern is that an unknown number of cases are undiagnosed. Had I not suffered that 16-hour Easter marathon that drove me to the emergency room, I wouldn’t have known. I would have ignored lesser symptoms. And I wouldn’t have told my wife, knowing that she would worry and then make me go to the doctor.
The resolution of the story? There isn’t one, not yet. I’m scheduled for an ablation procedure in December to try to fix what is essentially an electrical problem in my heart (though, as of this writing, the insurance company is refusing to approve the procedure). It may work, or it may not. The electrophysiologist is optimistic, and I decided that it was better to attempt the ablation now, while I’m younger and healthier. We’ll see.
But I keep coming back to the fact that this all began on Easter. Perhaps I am an Emmaus disciple, walking in the company of Jesus unawares? And AFib or no, death comes to all. That, however, isn’t the end of the story — not for those who anticipate following in the footsteps of a risen Lord.
In this life, we suffer what bodily indignities we must, large or small, visible and invisible.
Yet somehow, it makes a difference to anticipate resurrection. I can even give those indignities a pet name, with realistic hope and a wry smile.