Have you ever been in the middle of your work-out at the gym and suddenly felt like your heart is doing something strange? I did, and this is my story…
I’ve always been a fitness fanatic, I began gymnastics from around age six and continued on through my teens at competition level which meant I was as fit as a fiddle. I was very athletic at school generally and had a natural ability. My school would host an annual event involving running up a nearby hill Brent Knoll, to the highest point and then back down with a sprint to the finish line. I would win this event each year and collected my trophy and medal. All those years as a gymnast stood me in good stead for anything sporty. I was also an avid tennis player and played throughout my time at secondary school.
Leaving all that behind but wanting to stay fit I got into the gym which I loved. I’ve always been very appearance-conscious so had to be doing something fitness-wise! I would go along with friends after work at least 3 times a week. It was at these gym sessions, particularly on the stepper machine I started to become aware of a problem. If I pushed myself to a certain level I could feel my heart start to race out of control, as if a switch had been flicked and my heart was pacing at an inappropriate speed.
“Along with this, I would have an odd sensation in my neck and a crushing feeling in the centre of my chest”.
I would step off the machine and wander around the gym trying to focus on other things to distract from the horrible feeling of my heart beating out of my chest. It would settle and I would gently continue with my workout. (Minus the stepper)! Eventually, it became so disabling I decided to go and get checked out. I couldn’t understand how this was happening to me as I’d not had any problems like this previously.
I made an appointment to see the doctor and after explaining my symptoms I was referred to have an exercise test and a 24 hour ECG at my local hospital. My appointment came through quickly and literally the following week I was there on the hospital treadmill wired up to an ECG machine. I started with some brisk walking and then the machine was set to incline. After a minute or so my heart instantly went out of normal rhythm and was beating way too fast for the work I was doing. The consultant asked me to continue so that she could get a proper reading.
I had to really push myself to continue as I would usually stop at this point.
I began to feel faint and the pain shooting up my throat was too much. I had to stop and be helped to the couch to lie down. I was still wired up and my heart continued pacing at a ridiculous speed. The needle on the ECG readout was flying up and down. I could see the nurses talking worriedly and then one dashed out of the room, returning quickly with a Doctor. They told me they were going to thump my chest in an attempt to shock my heart back into normal rhythm. This they did twice which seemed to work and my heart rhythm returned to normal. I was absolutely terrified by this and was told I had a serious heart condition which needed further investigation.
Within a week or so I was on the cardiac ward at the BRI undergoing a cardiac catheterization (angiogram). This was the most awful and frightening thing I’ve ever had to endure. I was petrified and had to remain awake throughout. An incision was made in my groin and a tiny camera threaded up through my main artery into my heart, and a special dye was used to look at the vessels. My heartbeat was manipulated by the surgeon and was slowed to a rate where I was literally gasping for breath to then being sped up to such a rate I felt as if I was vibrating. I spent the entire 2.5 hours in tears fearing for my life, the nurse did her best to comfort me but honestly, there wasn’t much she could do to console me.
Finally, the investigation was complete. The surgeon sat on the bed and told me I had a blockage in my left bundle branch.
(LBBB) simply put, this is a conduction abnormality. Our hearts have a natural pacemaker which sends a beat impulse along the right and left ventricle causing the thud, thud of our heartbeat. For me, the blockage means the impulse can’t travel down the left ventricle which causes a delayed contraction on that side. It’s something of a mystery why this has developed. My cardiologist told me that without any underlying condition (which I don’t have) this is more of a “one of those things” situation. My heart pumps ok it just beats differently from a normal heart.
I was advised that a pacemaker would be an option or at the very least I would be on beta blockers for the rest of my life to control the arrhythmias I was experiencing. Potentially, this could be life-threatening if an arrhythmia occurred and didn’t settle. I was horrified at the thought of this and said no to both options. I was only a young woman and so the last thing I wanted was a pacemaker. With my decision made, I left the hospital and tried to continue with normal life (the other option).
Over time I became unhealthily conscious of every ‘odd’ heartbeat, focussing on every missed beat or any slight rhythm change, sending me into a state of fear or panic which would exacerbate the situation. I couldn’t even read about my condition without feeling weird.
Our heart is our life force so of course, it was difficult not to become completely taken over by the fear of death. A few years later I was carted off to the hospital in an ambulance after spending a day feeling faint with on-off arrhythmia. I was given an aspirin to chew and silver nitrate sprayed under my tongue, an ECG in the ambulance showed I was indeed in LBBB (no surprise there). I also had a blood test to check for any heart damage. Fortunately, I was fine and sent home. During this time I’d given up any fitness as the thought of it causing my untimely death just put me off.
My daughter was born and my pregnancy was, fortunately, heart issue free for me. It then became apparent when Lilymay was around three years old that she may also have a problem with her heart.
If we were walking she would tell me her chest hurt and say ‘feel my heart’ resting my hand on her chest I could feel her heart beating really fast, thumping against her chest wall. We could be sitting watching tv and she would take my hand and and place it over her heart and say it’s going funny again. I could actually hear her heart beating, it was a strange clicking sound. It would send shivers down my spine and I couldn’t bear it. I tried to pass it off not wanting to face up to it and what it meant but I knew I had to get her checked out. The whole thing weighed heavy on my life and the stress was unreal.
After much investigation, my biggest fear was realised. she too had a conduction abnormality.
A different kind from mine, she needed surgery to correct hers. Those five hours in theatre were the longest and most dreadful five hours I could possibly imagine. A parent’s worst nightmare.
We always assume our child or children are healthy, take it for granted almost. It’s after they start mentioning a possible issue we feel the full impact of having a poorly child and how it affects our day-to-day life. Her cardiologist told me that in every playground there are several children running around with an undiagnosed or unnoticed potentially life-threatening heart issue. That’s definitely food for thought.
Gladly, her surgery was corrective and she now leads a normal life.
Going from a child who couldn’t walk any distance and just looked ill, to being able to run and join in with normal activities is such a blessing. For me, it meant I wasn’t fearful every time I left her at school and found myself waiting for the phone call which parents dread. I was finally free from living with the daily fear of the unspeakable happening to my child. I will be forever grateful to the surgeon and his team at the Bristol Children’s Hospital for giving Lilymay her life back.
The photo below shows Lilymay recovering from her surgery and then bridesmaid at my wedding in 2015 A picture of health as she is today. So proud of my beautiful, brave daughter. She is a precious child whom I will always cherish.
Getting Over It And Keeping Fit
Back to me. After a stiff talking to from my cardiologist who told me (amongst other things) to stop letting my heartbeat take over my life. His words really struck a chord with me and I gradually overcame my obsession with my heartbeat. he told me to ignore any strange feelings or at least not to focus on it, (unless it’s something obvious)! I find if I cough when I feel a palpitation or rhythm change it really helps.
I go to the gym a few times a week for kettles, Body pump and HIIT. I’ve been doing this for two years now.
I even tried spin a few times but honestly, there’s no way I should be doing that. I saw sense and gave it up. I try not to let it stop me leading the life I want. I still have the odd day when I feel strange with continuous yawning. This always tells me something’s not quite right. If this is the case I won’t go to the gym but just try to have a quiet day at home.
I know my limits! I take it at my own pace and thankfully I’ve been fine, there’s been the very odd occasion where I’ve felt an odd rhythm starting during a gym class but I just slow down, cough a couple of times and it seems to resolve itself. The only downside is yawning! I yawn A LOT when I work out, this yawning is caused by my condition as my brain isn’t getting the oxygen it needs which triggers the yawning in an attempt to correct it. I do get funny looks from the instructors sometimes!
When I think back to how my condition overtook my life I’ve come so far these days. I’m so proud of myself. I can read about LBBB and Lilymay’s condition without it triggering a problem for me. I’ve learned to manage it and along with switching the focus away from my heart, I live a normal life now. I don’t let it stop me being active.
I rarely drink alcohol, I eat healthily, drink lots of water. I don’t eat breakfast (find out why here when I wrote about why breakfast is a dangerous meal) My weight is around 8 stone I’m a size UK 6. These things coupled with the simple fact that I’m female make me no more likely to die of a heart-related incident than anyone else! I want to be around as long as I can.
New Gym Gear…
These leggings from the Superdry Core range are brilliant.
I have really skinny legs so it’s not always easy to get leggings to be tight enough. These are perfect, like a second skin almost. really comfy too. They give good support with a bit of compression although they aren’t designed as those compression type gym leggings! They have a handy little pocket on the back for a locker key or whatever. I also have this vest which has a self-coloured print which is really what drew me to it. Both the leggings and the vest are a breathable fabric which wicks away any moisture so you stay comfortable during your workout.
The cropped hoodie is really comfy and I love the high neck style, it crosses over and is an unusual style. The red and blue branding really stands out against the white which looks really cool. What’s your brand?