Monday, February 8, 2021

A Heart Story

Posted By on Mon, Feb 8, 2021 at 9:01 AM

This is a sports column, so let’s start with this: The best athlete I know over the age of 50 happens to be my wife. Sharon has run a pair of marathons since hitting the half-century mark, the second one faster than the first. We’ve run dozens of 5Ks, Sharon always patiently waiting for me — her sweat nearly dried — at the finish line. And this isn’t a recent development. Sharon was an all-state soccer player during our high school days in Vermont and helped our Northfield Marauders win a state championship as a senior. High school boys challenged Sharon to races when she was in middle school. Her list of names taken while kicking ass is, shall we say, lengthy.

But back to the present. Sharon will cross the finish line of her next marathon with a pacemaker in her chest.

I’m with you. Huh?!?

During Sharon’s annual physical last year, an EKG revealed abnormalities in her heart rate: too high at times, too low at others, and without a pattern. She wore a monitor home for 24 hours and the larger sample size revealed the same troubling data. Most concerning: As Sharon slept, her heart would pause — yes, her heart would stop — for as long as two seconds. Fortunately, our brains are wired to recognize such a “glitch” and wake us when it happens. Sharon would wake up, if slightly, catch her breath, and gradually fall back to sleep. It wasn’t painful or violent. But concerning to her cardiologist? Absolutely.
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Last week, Sharon checked into Baptist Memorial Hospital for an electrophysiological study (EPS), a procedure involving very thin wire electrodes that, traveling through a vein, approach and measure the heart’s function. And sure enough, my wife’s heart was not beating properly. It’s called tachy-brady syndrome: sometimes too fast, others too slow. The risk of such a condition isn’t necessarily a heart attack (she has no blockage; the mechanical function and blood flow from Sharon’s heart is strong). The risk involves the possibility of Sharon losing consciousness — even briefly — while driving, while swimming, while riding a bike. A catastrophic event may have been waiting for Sharon, one directly connected to tachy-brady syndrome.

So my wife of 26 years is now wearing a pacemaker in her chest. The size of a silver dollar — with two thin wires, or “leads,” snaking their way to her heart — the pacemaker will moderate her heart rhythm if it threatens one extreme or another on the scale of human heartbeat. The pacemaker won’t prevent her heart from relaxing with a glass of wine or a night’s sleep. It won’t prevent her heart from speeding up when she hits mile 25 of her next marathon, knowing the race is nearly complete. This life-improving, life-lengthening device will simply make sure her heart “remembers” the proper range of beats. Among Sharon’s many skills, dancing is not one. So there’s a slice of humor in all this.

Why Sharon? Why tachy-brady at a still relatively young age? I’m not an M.D. and I’m not a biology professor, so I’ll do the best I can at relaying what I’ve been told by Sharon’s cardiologist. We’re all born with a bundle of cells — millions of them — tasked with charging our heart for every beat so we don’t have to consciously instruct this vital organ to do its thing. Well, some of us are born a few cells shy, and we reach a point where that bundle of cells is overworked, sometimes dangerously so. Modern science has provided an answer, a delightfully tiny device that will almost certainly help my wife live happier and longer than she would have without one.

The irony squeezes me. “Sharon Murtaugh’s faulty heart” is an oxymoron. She is the kindest person I’ve ever known. She’s my Valentine, and so much more. To paraphrase Lady Gaga, the part of me that’s her will never die. And among her myriad attributes, Sharon’s heart has always stood out. She laughs with vigor. She cries at the right times. And her devotion to our daughters is immeasurable. And Sharon runs. My god, you need to see Sharon run.

Valentine’s Day will feel different this year. My favorite person will be nearby. And my heart will race.

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