In retrospect, I understand that the problem began last spring.
Since moving to Horseshoe Bay, MLB and I had gotten acclimated to running in the hills that give this part of Texas its name. We weren't fast by any stretch, but we were able to consistently run five miles or so along courses that had elevation gains of about 100' per mile without suffering too much.
That began to change - for me, anyway - in the late spring, as the heat and humidity of this region started to make their appearance. I found myself "hitting the wall" and having to walk up some of the steeper inclines. I chalked it up to the aforementioned weather conditions and was confident that it was just a matter of acclimation (there's that word again). To my chagrin, things didn't improve.
Along that same time, something else began occurring more frequently. Over the past couple of years, I had occasionally experienced a racing heartbeat. It didn't last long, sometimes only a few seconds but never more than a minute or two, and it was infrequent...maybe once every six months of so. But starting earlier this year, that frequency increased to the point where I experienced it once or twice a week. It still didn't last long, and again I rationalized it away as just another age-related challenge.
I lost that rationalization on the afternoon of Sunday, September 2nd. My heart started racing...and it didn't stop. I laid in bed and felt it pounding. It's a disconcerting thing to be constantly aware of your own heartbeat. According to my watch, my resting heart rate (which, to be honest, has always been high) was in excess of 120 beats per minute. Despite all of this, I exercised my male pigheaded prerogative and never mentioned it to MLB, figuring this too would end and things would return to normal.
They didn't, and on the following Thursday morning, I told her that something was wrong and I needed to see a doctor. We drove into Marble Falls and I checked in at the generic medical clinic. Fortunately, I was the only patient in the waiting room and between that and my description of why I was there, I was almost immediately put in a room. A nurse hooked me up to an EKG machine and within two seconds of starting the test, she gave me a firm diagnosis.
"You have atrial flutter."
I had never heard of atrial flutter, but I soon learned all about it. It's the less serious cousin of atrial fibrillation (a-fib, which we ALL know about thanks to the endless drug ads on TV), and in effect, it's when the upper chambers of the heart lose their rhythm (insert white guy dancing joke here) and leave the lower chambers to do all the work. As the cardiologist later explained, it causes a horsepower loss of around 20%, although I felt like I was working at a lot less than 80% of normal.
The cardiologist said that I could continue to do whatever I felt like doing, so we continued to run and bicycle. Cycling wasn't too hard on me, but running was an entirely different matter. I often walked as much as I ran, and never did more than 45 minutes of both. I was also continuously tired; if I could read a book for more than ten minutes at a time without dozing off, it was a small victory. Worst of all, I had to cut back significantly on dancing.
The next couple of months were filled with a series of tests to rule out any additional issues: echocardiogram, stress echocardiogram, thyroid scan (an abnormal thyroid can cause cardiac arrhythmia), more EKGs than I can recall. There was also lots of body hair shaving. I was put on the first longterm prescription meds of my life, a blood thinner and a blood pressure regulator. Along the way I picked up a cardiologist, an electrophysiologist (heretofore unheard of in my experience), and a personal care physician (PCP). I also finally realized the importance of an Advanced Directive and Medical Power of Attorney. And, last but by no means least, I experienced firsthand the total chaos and impenetrable arbitrary obfuscation of the medical insurance industry.
The latter merits a quick anecdote. In the process of getting a PCP, MLB and I both had blood tests. Our insurance paid for the blood tests themselves, but denied the cost of drawing the blood. I'd love to hear an explanation for that. (OTOH, it does beg the question of why the lab even separates out those charges.)
The end result of all of these tests was that everything about me was normal (insert "oh, yeah; let me tell you a thing or two about yourself" joke here) except for the atrial arrhythmia. Fortunately, atrial flutter is easily cured via a procedure known as radio frequency catheter ablation. That's just a fancy term for "burning to a crisp the nerve pathways that are causing the arrhythmia." They basically run an extension cord through your groin up to the heart, plug it into a wall socket, and flip a switch. After the smoke clears and the sprinklers shut off, you're cured. The procedure is extremely effective and low risk, and I was deemed an ideal candidate, and not just because I had insurance.
I also learned that ablation is extremely common. Almost without exception, people I talked to either undergone the procedure themselves, or knew someone (and often multiple people) who had. And in every case, the procedure had fixed the problem.
So, yesterday I checked into the Austin Heart Hospital around noon, went into the operating room at 2:30 p.m. and was back at home before 9:30 (the hospital is 50 miles from where we live, and we stopped for a quick bite of supper). As I write this, my heartbeat is comfortingly unobtrusive, although the true test will come in a few days when I'm able to return to exercising.
I can't say enough good things about Austin Heart Hospital. Its staff was without exception kind, caring, professional, and efficient. I'm willing to forgive their refusal to bring me a cheeseburger to lift my spirits before the procedure.
The other positive outcome from this experience was the touching outpouring of support from friends and family with whom I had shared my predicament. I'm pretty sure that God doesn't scale His response based on how many prayers are lifted up to Him, but those expressions of love mean the world to me.
In closing, I want to say something to those readers of the male persuasion who, like me, seem genetically predisposed to ignoring the blaring sirens and atomic-powered neon flashing signs that something is wrong. Don't be like me and wait months or even weeks to get it checked out. Some things will get better on their own, but others just don't improve when left untreated. The problem is that you really aren't smart enough to know the difference.