What if: Lessons from Cardiac Concerns

I wish I could tell you that I am a healthy person.

When I began to have disordered eating tendencies, I decided to reach out to CAPS and Health Services to get help. I had begun to feel confident and beautiful, but I was not going about it in the healthiest of ways. I think that I have always had these thoughts in my head, but things seemed to heat up toward the beginning of August.

Like most summer flings, mine came to an end and I was in a place where I did not recognize myself. I was heartbroken, insecure, and anxious; feelings I had not felt since high school. Therefore, I ended up starting down the long and winding road of self-improvement. First stop, a physical exam.

I hate going to the doctors. It makes me feel extremely uncomfortable, physically vulnerable, and utterly exposed. My mind is always fighting this battle on the way I look. One day I feel on top of the world, the next I can’t get out of bed because I am so terrified someone would slightly judge and whisper about my stomach, lips, or even my nails. 

In hopes of avoiding an induced state of panic, I went in ready to get out of the sterile smelling office as fast as humanly possible. After some initial blood work and a listen to my heart, I was shocked to find out I had a heart murmur among other concerning results. That twenty minute appointment quickly became two hours long. I felt a sense of dread placing its roots in the pit of my stomach. I was told that I would have to wear a heart monitor for a month, get an echocardiogram, an EKG, more blood work—the list goes on and on.

It took me nearly two weeks to get the echo and the heart monitor placed. It took me a month to get an appointment with a cardiologist to find out what the hell was going on. Initially, I was told by two different offices that there was no availability until next year. When I did finally see someone, they let me know that I was lucky because I got in so quickly. When you are young, healthy, and live an active lifestyle, that month feels like forever plus a year. 

I hate surprises and anything out of my control. It causes me to panic and escape to fantasy worlds where everything is just fine because I can’t face the unknown. I needed to know answers the second I found out there was something wrong. 

Unsurprisingly, that is not how the American healthcare system works. It takes weeks (at a minimum) to see a doctor, and when you go to the appointment, the doctor has not had time to “look at the pictures and data himself, only read the summary of your profile.” I had been patient (kind of) and when I thought I would have something definitive, the rug was pulled out from under me, again, for like the third time that month.

I use exercise to escape my self doubts. A girl only has one heart, and being told that it might give out before she can legally drink was difficult to process. Although I am nearly twenty-one years old and attend a spin cycle class nearly every day, I was told I could die if I chose to continue cycling. I could die if I do the things that allow me to escape the voices in my head screaming, “You are not good enough. You are not smart enough. You are not pretty enough.  You are not enough.”

This past month has been incredibly difficult. Getting out of bed in the morning was always a struggle. Doing my homework and finding the motivation to do anything that was required of me was nearly impossible. I was taking three hour naps every day and using humor about my situation to compensate for the fear that was consuming most of my emotional energy. I was pretending that everything was fine with a laugh and a joke, but couldn’t get the voice out of my head saying “you might die.” 

I am typically healthy. I have never had to deal with anything like this before, especially on my own. I’m working three jobs, taking a full time course load, conducting research, and more. This shouldn’t happen to someone like me. This doesn’t happen to people like me. But it did, and it does.

After what seemed like centuries, I was finally able to see a cardiologist. I went into this appointment not knowing what to expect. I walked into the waiting room with sweating hands and uneven breaths. After half an hour of intake, I saw my doctor. He went over mine and my family’s cardiac health history, took a listen to my heart, and then, I heard what was wrong with me.

Mitral valve prolapse with mild/moderate regurgitation and aortic insufficiency. I finally had a name for what was going on. Why I was passing out, why I was dizzy, why I was fatigued.  While nervous about what this means, I also realized that I am luckier than most. I did not have to wait until 2022 for this information. I got a diagnosis. My problem shouldn’t become one for many years. Until the day that someone tells me I must have heart surgery, I can live a normal life. I can live the life that I was living before I sat down and had a doctor with a stethoscope listen to me take a few deep breaths.

With that said, I can’t seem to go back to my life before. Thinking that your life could be taken from you in a matter of minutes, for reasons totally out of your control, makes you really reflect about your choices. I asked myself, why did I put so much thought and time into people who would not do the same for me? Why do I care so much about anyone else’s opinions of myself other than just my own? Why don’t I care about myself as much as I do for the people in my inner circle? I could not think of valid answers to these questions. Excuses are just manifestations of denial and avoidance of a problem that takes time, effort, and significant emotional energy to solve.  

I think I always knew that I would be fine, but for over a month, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking about that tragic what if. What if I hadn’t been alright? What if I hadn’t said anything? What if his answer was different? Was this my anxiety cutting through the medication or should I be thinking about the worst case scenarios?  

During the last thirty one days, I have learned a few things. 1) The Maine healthcare system is a pain to deal with 2) you need to advocate for yourself in order to get results and 3) don’t let the what-ifs and why-nots control how you perceive and present yourself.

I am still working on that last one, but each day is a step toward a healthier lifestyle, both physically and emotionally. If my mitral valve prolapse becomes severe overnight, I do not want to regret any of the time I spent while it was mild.