I Had a Heart Attack in the Second Grade

“Mary, can I feel your heart for just a moment?” I asked the little girl in front of me who promptly turned around at the sound of her name.

“Sure,” she replied, puffing up her chest and tucking a strand of her short brown hair behind one ear. One of my palms lay flat on her chest, and then flat on mine. There was definitely a problem.

“Girls, don’t talk to each other right now!” Somebody chastised us. I didn’t acknowledge the person.

“Mary, feel my heart. I think there’s a problem.” She obeyed, and nodded.

“That’s weird,” she said. “Maybe raise your hand.”

“Teacher!” I called out calmly, after raising my hand for several moments and not getting a response. We were standing in line after the last bell had rung for the day. I was seven years old, in the second grade, attending a small, private school in a city that neighbored my hometown.

Mrs. P heard my voice and came to my side where she got down on my level so I could tell her what I’d raised my hand for. She was always good about relating to us.

I looked at her seriously, hiding my panic, and speaking in a quiet voice.“I think I’m having a heart attack,” I explained. “I should probably go to a hospital soon so I don’t die.”

“A heart attack?” she asked, amused. “You’re too young for that!”

“I’m serious,” I replied gravely. “Feel my heart.”

As she did, the smile faded from her face and was replaced with a plastic grin, meant to reassure me.

“You know what, Becca? I’ll be right back. You wait here, and don’t move. Feel Mary’s heart while you wait.”

“But I already did, and mine is different,” I objected.

“Just do it,” she said, already walking away. I obeyed, and with my palm on Mary’s chest again, I watched as she made her way through lines of chattering children to the principle, who also doubled as the Kindergarten teacher. Both women spoke quickly back and forth, exchanging glances in my general direction.

Mrs. C, the principle, dashed through the crowd of children, and without explanation, picked me up and threw me over her shoulder. She began a sprint to the office, which was located on the other side of the school.

My mom was driving up at that moment, and pulling into a parking place, she caught a glimpse of me slung over the shoulder of the principle who had just disappeared behind the office door. Never shaken by much, she calmly exited the vehicle, scooped up my baby brother from his car-seat, and with him on her hip, began walking towards the office.

Inside, I was ordered to sit. One woman brought me water, and another exclaimed in horror, “She’s so pale!”

Pale. I fixated on that word. A bucket? I was not a bucket. There must have been a different meaning.

Another said, “I’m going to take your pulse, okay?” I didn’t know what that was, but I allowed her to grab my wrist.

I wasn’t worried. I’d seen the doctor shows my mom watched, and I knew that if I went to the hospital soon, I’d get to live.

“I lost count, but it’s over 200!” The pulse woman exclaimed. “Oh Sweetie!” she held my hand in hers to give me the comfort I didn’t need since I wasn’t concerned. “You’re so clammy!” she cried out.

Clammy. The ocean creatures? Enough with these weird words.

“What is ‘pale’ and what is ‘clammy’?” I interrupted their conversation about an ambulance with my abrupt question, borne from frustration. They stopped fussing over me and exchanged glances.

The principle explained that they were symptoms of illness. Pale meant white. Clammy meant a cold sweat. Kind of damp, cold hands.

I looked down at my palms again. I felt fine, and my skin looked normal. I was confused.

My mom entered the office and was assaulted by about 5 panicking women, all of them chattering loudly, with words like “Heart” “Fast” “ER” “Immediate” and “Ambulance” being tossed about.

“She’s probably just being a drama queen,” my mom joked. “But I’ll take her in. It’s probably nothing to worry about.”

Drama Queen. I’d heard that one tossed around before too. I knew it meant I was being emotional, more-so than the situation called for. But I definitely wasn’t being emotional now. I was calm. I didn’t ask for this heart attack I was having.

My mom looked at me, pondering something, and then suggested we go to the doctor’s. Relieved to get away from all the drama, I took her hand and agreed.

“I have clammy hands they say,” I informed her as I stood to leave.

“I noticed,” she replied with a wink.

The secretary handed me an ice pack and I hopped into the back seat of our little green car.

“Don’t let her walk too much,” one woman advised.

“Hurry!” another cried.

We pulled out of the parking lot, and I shifted in my seat. “Why did they give me an ice pack?” I asked my mom, looking down at the cold pack that my apparently “clammy” hands were clinging to. “What am I supposed to use it for? Do I put it on my chest over my heart?” I asked.

My mom glanced at me in the rear-view mirror. “They were just nervous, and that’s what school secretaries do best. They think ice packs cure everything. It’s okay if you just put it aside.” I set it on the seat next to me, and we soon pulled up to my Pediatrician’s office, a building about a block away from the main hospital.

“Does your heart still feel funny?” she asked me as we approached the big blue office door which stood in stark contrast against the orange stucco building.

“Yeah,” I replied, placing my hand on my chest to confirm it. “What is the Doctor going to do?”

“I’m not sure. But he’ll check you out to see if you are okay. Maybe he will use his stethoscope.”

I always liked it when the doctors used their stethoscopes on me. Nobody else in the world had ever heard my heart before, but when they put their instrument in their ears, I knew they were listening to something special, something that no other person’s normal ears had ever heard before: my unique heartbeat.

My mom said something to the nurse at the desk who put me in a room immediately. I wasn’t going to get to play with the toys in the waiting room, but I figured it was for the best if I wanted to survive a heart attack.

I sat on the stiff paper on the table in the cold room with my mom nearby flipping through a children’s book which she read to my brother. Meanwhile the nurse retrieved the doctor, pulling him from an appointment with another patient.

He entered with a stiff, concerned look on his face. He glanced at me, took my pulse and requested that I cough.


“Yes. Force a few deep coughs,” he said. “Maybe it will force your heart to correct itself.”

I did, and nothing changed.

“Try to bear down, like you are going to go poo,” He said.

“I don’t need to go poo,” I replied.

“It doesn’t matter. Just push, and push hard,” he ordered.

I did, but again, nothing changed.

He asked if he could pick me up, and when I nodded, he threw me over his shoulder just like the principle had done.

“Why didn’t you take her straight to the hospital?” he asked my mom, not in an accusatory way, but simply curious.

“Is it serious? I didn’t think it was serious.”

“With the heart, you never mess around, but yes, it is serious. I’d call an ambulance, but it won’t get here in time. I want you to drive straight to the ER and pull all the way up to the front door so she doesn’t have to walk far. They’ll be waiting. As soon as you drive away, I’ll call them to tell them you are coming. Be fast!”

My mom grabbed her purse and my pediatrician ran with me over his shoulder to the car.

“You’re like carrying a sack of potatoes!” he exclaimed, trying to make light of the situation.

Sack of potatoes. My dad had said that to me one night while he was carrying me to my room when I’d fallen asleep in his spot on the bed beside my mom while he was out for a night-time business meeting. I’d never seen a sack of potatoes. I’d seen plastic bags of potatoes. Nets of potatoes. But never a sack. What was a sack? I guess they meant some sort of thing that held potatoes in a clump, and I was that something.

My mom was now concerned, I could see it in her eyes, how she kept glancing over at me. We were in front of the ER in no time, and when we walked in, we were able to get helped right away.

They brought me into the first room where they took my vital signs. The woman took my blood pressure, my oxygen blood levels, and then my pulse with some sort of device I’d never seen before that pinched my finger like a clothespin (an oximeter). On the device, three red numbers appeared after several moments: 365 bpm.

There was gurney waiting for me just through the double doors. They put me on these cold, white sheets, and one woman walked beside the gurney as another person pushed it. She was wiping my forearm with a cold alcohol wipe. As soon as the bed had come to a halt, she said, “I’m going to be giving you a quick poke with this needle that will stay under your skin to give you medicine.”

See? I knew at the hospital they wouldn’t let me die from my heart attack. I knew they had a cure.

I cringed as she poked me, and watched as she connected a syringe into the IV line. It was filled with a clear fluid, and I knew it was the medicine that would save my life.

“Adenosine,” one nurse told my questioning mother, as another pushed the fluid into the line.

A third nurse offered to take my brother from my mom and she carried him away, cooing at him, admiring his big brown eyes that we liked to call his “Tweety Bird Eyes.”

The one who put the needle in my arm got down on my level and looked me in the eye and said, “In just a moment, Sweetie, your heart is going to stop beating. Don’t worry, okay? It is going to restart right away, and then, it will be beating normally again.

“Okay.” There were so many new revelations happening on this particular day, that I had no idea if stopping one’s heart was normal or not. Life seemed brimming with surprises. Anything could happen. Second graders could get heart attacks.

I had only one concern, which I asked before the medication took effect: “Will it hurt when my heart stops?”

“It shouldn’t. But you might shake afterwards, okay? And when that happens, we have hot blankets to cover you with and make you cozy.” I nodded.

Then, I waited.

Everything was quiet, and my mom broke the silence by asking me, “Are you okay?”

I nodded. “Mhm.”

Still, we waited.

I’d never waited for my heart to stop before.

When it happened, I barely noticed. The machine did, of course, with its incessant beeping. All in the room around my bed noticed. I could see it on their expectant faces while they waited for the first beat to appear on the monitor, the machine connected to the electrodes which had been slapped about on my body beneath the blanket.

While all this took place, the world was still, and quiet, and I wondered, “What will it feel like if I die? If my heart doesn’t beat again?” I didn’t feel afraid. I accepted whatever was going to happen, just like I’d accepted everything else that had happened to me up until that moment in that day.

I felt my chest grow still for a moment, then I felt funny movements, strange ones, different from the heart attack I’d been having before, and then finally, one firm, solid beat.

My body felt tired, and when the blood that was keeping me alive was able to move through my little body once more, I shook, just as the nurse had predicted. Like the chills one has during the flu, I shook, and I couldn’t control it. Mini, rapid convulsions took over my arms, legs, neck, jaw, and core. A nurse brought a blanket to me, and wrapped me in it.

My mom sat in a chair beside me, she reached for my hand, and said quietly, “It’s okay.”

It was okay. I was alive. I pulled the blanket off. It was so warm, and my skin was flushed red. “I’m not cold,” I clarified to her, as though it would reassure her. “I’m just shaking, and I don’t know why.”

“The medicine does that, Baby Girl. You’ll be okay in just a little bit.” She waited with me, and when I seemed stable, she left to call my dad who got off of work early to go see me.

When they discharged me, I remember thinking it was the strangest thing to 1) walk out of there 2) walk out of there alive and 3) walk out of there alive with a normally beating heart.

That day awakened me to the joys and wonders of modern medicine. A world had just been revealed to me that I’d never known before. It was a world where lives in crisis were saved. I think that’s the day when the seed was planted in me, the passion, to become a nurse.

“Supraventricular Tachycardia,” they called it. “It may correct itself, it may not. If it happens again, it’s probably time for her to see a cardiologist and look into options for treatment.”

So, we waited.

This time, we were waiting for my heart to stop again, and this time, it was a much longer wait.

Almost one year passed. My baby brother was now able to walk, run, talk, and I’d just returned home from a full week at summer camp with my friends from church.

I’d had a total blast. There were almost 100 kids spending a week in the forest with games during the day, cafeteria food, the creek to play in every afternoon, the water swarming with crawdads and tadpoles just waiting to be caught by small, curious hands, ice cream every night for dessert, a campfire and songs, and the best part, sleeping in a bunk bed in a cabin with seven other girls my age. It was so exciting!

The babysitter, our Pastor’s daughter, sat in the family room with my little brother when I came home. The moment his Tweety Bird eyes met mine, he leapt off her lap and ran to me, where we then romped on the floor while my mom thanked her for all of her effort.

“J, we really appreciate your help,” she was saying, as my brother and I left the room.

He and I were in the entryway of our home, on our hands and knees, doing a stare-down.

“I’m a Lion!” he cried.

“Grrrr!!!!!!!” I growled, playing along.

Then, we both proceeded to roar.

“ROOOA-” My roar was cut short.

One arm collapsed, bringing me closer to the ground, the other went straight for my chest. My heart had just completed the hardest thump I’d ever felt. It stole my breath. I heard the beat in my ears, drowning out my three year old brother’s high pitched roaring beside me.

It began again, those awful, rapid, incomplete beats.

This time, though, I knew.

I knew it wasn’t a heart attack. I knew I had a condition called Supraventricular Tachycardia. I knew I could die from it if it wasn’t treated. I knew we had to wait to see if it came back. And this time, I wasn’t going to be as accepting and passive as I had been the year before.

The world was different now. I understood that kids my age weren’t supposed to die, and I knew that kids my age were supposed to have hearts that worked right. I knew I was different. This time, I was scared.

“Sissy?” my little brother was tapping me now, as I planted both of my palms on the ground, still in my lion position. I’d never gotten to complete my roar. I was gasping for breath, frozen in panic. I didn’t want him touching me.

I pulled away without acknowledging the blatant concern written upon his face.

I stood, and with tears streaming down my face, I ran, screaming, into the family room where my mom and the babysitter were still talking.

“It’s happening again!” I screamed, pointing to my chest, tapping it, breathing short, shallow breaths, my face wrenched in fear.

“Your heart?” My mom asked me.

“Yes, my heart!!!!” I screamed back, irritated she didn’t understand the first time. Time was crucial.

The babysitter and my mom exchanged a quick agreement about the care of my brother, and the two of us left. My mom called my dad to let him know, and he met us in the ER, walking in only minutes after we’d arrived. Minutes. We were still in the waiting room after several minutes. Still waiting to check in at the front desk.

I stood there in line, my heart racing, trying to breathe, fighting the light-headedness that was either due to the hyperventilating panic, or the fact that my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen from my barely pumping blood from my barely working heart.

I glanced at my mom. “Why can’t they hurry?” I pleaded. I didn’t want to faint.

The year before, we’d been in a convalescent home at Christmas, just after my first heart episode, singing Christmas carols to the elderly. When Jingle Bells finished and Joy to the World was beginning, the room had started to fade to black. I looked to my assistant teacher who stood nearby.

“I’ve never fainted, but I think I’m going to,” I told her.

Everything was fuzzy, and this black circle had begun to encroach on my peripheral vision.

“Take off your sweatshirt,” she had ordered, fearing I was overheating.

She began helping me pull the sweatshirt off of my body, and snagged my mom, who was a chaperone for the trip, who brought me into the white corridor, a hallway just outside of the stuffy room we were in.

“Follow me,” my mom had said firmly.

“I can’t see you!” I cried out, realizing there was now only a pinpoint white dot in the center of my vision and the rest had gone black and an eerie green. Barely any light was getting through. Where was I supposed to walk? I felt so dizzy. She grabbed my wrist, and she said, “Trust me.”

I remembered playing games with the neighborhood kids, being blindfolded, and then trusting my partner to get me through an obstacle course we’d created in the street. I pretended it was a game, trusting my mom. I heard doors open.

“Pick up your feet,” she’d said.

She sat me on a bench. I could feel the wood beneath me, hear the birds, and almost taste the fresh, cool breeze that was lifting the tiny hairs on my arms. I heard a panting beside me, paper rustling in front of my face.

“Are my eyes open?” I remember asking.

“Yes,” another woman answered.

Who else was there?

My vision slowly returned. I saw we were on a bench facing the parking lot, the glass exit doors of the convalescent home beside us, my mom was fanning me with a folded up sheet of music for Joy to the World, and a little boy, a classmate of mine, was being fanned by another woman with a set of sheet music as well. The kid beside me looked awful. Apparently he’d almost fainted too, and I wondered if I looked just as bad as him.

“Just too hot in there,” the woman commented. “You poor things.”

Heat could make you pass out? The world was getting stranger every passing day. Hearts could stop and heat could take your vision away. Wow. But folded up Joy to the World could fix that in a jiff apparently.

I was jerked back to the present moment standing in the ER. I wasn’t going to pass out. I was going to fight it.

There were three teenage boys standing in front of me, arguing with the nurse at the admitting desk.

“He needs to be seen now!” One boy demanded.

“Yeah!” another chimed in. “I haven’t pooped in three days, man! Get me in there now! I need to poop!”

I couldn’t believe this. I was about to pass out and die of heart failure while three teenage boys who ate too much junk food and couldn’t poop were arguing with a nurse.

“There are more pressing cases at this moment. Take a seat and you’ll be helped shortly,” the nurse explained one final time.

It was finally my turn.

“I have supraventricular tachycardia and I need help now,” I wanted to say.

Instead, I let my mom speak for me. I was so panicked.

“She’s having an episode of SVT,” my mom explained calmly. She was always composed in emergency situations. Always. In everyday life, however, that was a different story.

The nurse promptly brought me to the room where they’d taken my vital signs a year before.

I was losing my patience. She slowly strapped on the blood pressure cuff, pulling apart the Velcro a couple of times to make sure it was positioned correctly. Each time she did so, I shifted in my seat. I needed the IV. I needed the medicine. When she finally began inflating the blood pressure cuff, I snapped. Like, wires in my brain literally came apart, and I began yanking at the cuff. “It’s too tight!” I cried, tears streaming down my face, panicking.

Why was she taking so long? “I need to get in there soon!” I told her. “I can’t hang in much longer.”

Years later I’d go into the ER again for something else, and when taking my blood pressure, the nurse would ask, “I see here that your chart says literally, ‘She freaked out’ in reference to your blood pressure. Are you going to be okay if I do this?” I laughed and told her that it was fine. Circumstances are important to know.

Back to the present, the ER nurse glanced down at me uncertainly. I pleaded with her to let me get treated. “Okay, okay. Calm down. I need to at least take your pulse.” She put the clothespin on my finger again and it read 402 bpm.

Again, I was placed on a gurney, electrodes slapped to my chest, and an IV stuck into my arm.

I remember my dad’s face. It hid no emotion. His brow was furrowed, his eyes intent upon my face. My mom was good at convincing me she was not worried. She was very comforting in that sense. But I could tell that my dad’s heart was absolutely breaking in that moment. His little girl, the one he always took such good care of, placed on a gurney, about to have her heart stopped.

For just a moment, I couldn’t imagine being in his shoes. For just a moment, I wanted to reassure him, to tell him I’d be fine, but that moment quickly disappeared and passed, lost forever. It’s a moment he probably doesn’t even remember today. Or maybe it was a moment I imagined.

I know, though, that I didn’t imagine wishing he wasn’t there. He hadn’t seen me in the middle of it all the last time, and I could see it was almost too much for him to bear. I wished he’d just leave.

My attention was drawn to the nurse beside me who was attaching the syringe, and I sighed with relief as I felt the fluid rush into my veins.

I knew I would be fine now. I knew I would make it.

I shook, just like before, only this time I wasn’t afraid. I was glad to be shaking. Glad, because it meant I’d received the medicine in time.

We returned home a little less hopeful than the first time I’d left that same emergency room just less than a year before.

“She needs to see a specialist,” was what was said in my Pediatrician’s office, and before I knew it, I found myself skipping down the streets of San Fransisco, holding my dad’s hand as my family and I approached the UCSF Medical Centers.

I saw a cardiologist who had seen many cases like mine, and who knew exactly what our options were.

I remember very little of the first visit. I think I was more enthralled by the tall buildings, fast-moving cars, flashy lights, sounds, and the flurry of activity.

I remember being on a table in her office, her cold fingers pressing on different places on my body, my attempt at resisting the urge to laugh because it tickled, and her placing those same electrodes on me that they’d put on me in the ER, only far more deliberately and carefully.

An EKG,” she had called it. An electrical picture of my heart. She showed me the graph, but I didn’t see how that looked like a heart. It was just scratchy lines, ink on paper. I could have done that with a pencil.

“As I see it,” she began, addressing my parents and me at the close of the visit, “You have three options. I’m going to explain them each, and I’ll leave you, missy, to decide.” She pointed at me.

I’d get to decide. Good. It was my heart, after all.

1) Pills 2) Cardiac Ablation 3) Pacemaker.

I argued with my parents during the whole time we were supposed to be deciding.

“PILLS,” I was pleading. “I don’t want surgery!”

“Cardiac Ablation,” they were saying, referring to one of the procedures she’d explained to us.

You see, my heart had, on a very simple level, different electrical pathways that it could utilize to pump blood, and they were not supposed to be there. It was something I was born with. And for whatever reason, two times, it had chosen to try to use those pathways to function, and it triggered my heart episodes that had brought me to the ER. The pathways that I had were incomplete, abnormal. The heart didn’t know what to do at that point. It needed a reboot, like a computer.

The Cardiac Ablation, the one my parents were vying for, was a procedure in which catheters would be inserted into my femoral artery and also in my neck, then pushed up to my heart. There would be a camera and lasers involved, and they would basically “cut” the messed up pathways.

They’d force my heart into episodes and search for the pathway that triggered it, cut it, and repeat until they could no longer force an episode, signaling that they had cut all the pathways.

“There are usually about two or three pathways,” we were told. “The procedure takes about an hour and a half.”

When the cardiologist returned, she asked what I wanted, and when I opened my mouth to answer, my parents interrupted and said, “She’ll have the cardiac ablation.”

“The pills!” I’d cried.

“Your parents have made a good choice, Becca,” she’d told me. “You don’t want to be attached to pills your whole life. The ablation will give you freedom. No open heart surgery from the pacemaker, no pills, just one fixed up heart. You play soccer. You want to be able to run just like the other kids, and a pacemaker might keep you from that. You want to be able to go to sleepovers with friends and not have to worry about taking a pill or running out of pills.”

I understood. I knew she was right. I’d known my parents were right before the cardiologist even entered the room and explained those things to me, but the thought of surgery was so daunting. That’s why I’d fought it. I was only 8 years old, and now they wanted to do surgery on me?

“Any questions?”

“Could I die during the surgery?” I asked.

“Not likely,” she replied with a smile, tussling my hair.

We left the cardiologist that day with me holding my dad’s hand, walking excitedly beside him saying, “I can’t wait to tell my 3rd grade class that I get to miss school to have heart surgery! How cool is that! Maybe the other kids will be jealous! Whadya think, Dad?”

I looked up and quickly realized he was not as enthusiastic as I was.

“I don’t think they’ll be very jealous. I’d just like you to be better,” he said.

“How much school do I get to miss you think?” I asked him.

“I dunno. A handful of days,” his voice was solemn.

I began walking calmly beside him, observing his expression. Maybe this surgery was more serious than I’d been lead on to believe.

I sat at conference table with a man who handed me a plain white doll made of cloth. “Here,” he replied. “Draw a face on it.”

I took the pens he offered me and confirmed that I actually got to draw on the toy.

“Sure thing. Make it look however you’d like it to look.”

I did my best, a little disappointed that it looked better in my head than what I was able to create with my hand. I wished the doll had come with a face. And some clothes. It was so boring looking, all white. I drew a bellybutton on it.

When I’d finished, the man was talking with my parents and he stopped, opened up a small package, and helped me attach electrodes to the doll’s chest, like he said they would do to me during my surgery to monitor my heart function. He showed me the different places on the doll where they were going to insert tubes. He’d also brought some of the slender catheters they were going to put in my arteries, and he let me touch them, hold them, examine them. They were rather uninteresting.

“Keep the doll,” the man told me when we finished our meeting, “And if you have any questions before the surgery, you can ask your parents and they can give me a call, okay? Otherwise, we’ll see you next Wednesday.” I nodded, and tucked the doll under my arm to shake his hand.

As I sat in the back seat on the drive home, I put my doll in my lap, looked at its silly face that I’d drawn on, and I felt relief. The doll had the same heart condition I had. It was going to have surgery just like me. And both the doll and I were going to be okay, I told myself, to keep the fear abated.

“Wake up.” My dad was shaking my shoulder gently, rubbing my back, and telling me that today was the big day. “You can sleep in the car, Bec, okay?”

“It’s too early to be waking up,” I mumbled, and he helped me into my big bathrobe.

The doctors had told me I could wear my pajamas to the hospital. They were just going to make me change as soon as I got there anyway.

I put my slippers on, and I left my heart surgery doll on my bed, tucked under a blanket, recovering from the pretend surgery it had gone through the day before. When I got home, the doll and I could recover together.

Instead, I picked out a stuffed animal dog that my Aunt and Uncle gave me before my surgery. I didn’t even like that set of relatives all that much, but for whatever reason, the dog they gave me was comforting. It was soft and calm, polka-dotted, and I named it Speckles, accordingly.

We arrived at the UCSF Medical Centers as the sun was rising over the bay, and we traveled from room to room where I got questioned, poked, where paperwork was filled out, IV lines installed, last minute questions answered, last chance to back out given, and where I was given a room, where I was finally able to rest in until the surgery.

I opened a card from a teenage boy at my church, who had the already had the same surgery I was about to have, and he’d even had it at the same place. He had been awake for his surgery, and when it was finished, he threw up.

Throwing up was my worst fear. I’d been traumatized a few years earlier from a terrible stomach flu (maybe it was food poisoning?), but ever since then, throwing up had been on my “better to die” list.

The doctor explained to me that it was because the boy from my church had a different medicine put into his body so he wouldn’t feel the surgery, since he was awake. She explained to me that I was going to be all the way asleep for my surgery, and that I’d be given an anti-nausea medicine for later to keep me from throwing up.

“Don’t eat the pizza,” his card read in scratchy handwriting.

My mom had seen it and laughed, but I took it seriously.

“I’m not ordering the pizza, Mom,” I told her. “No way I’m going to take a chance and throw up.”

“The pizza didn’t cause it, kiddo,” she laughed.

But there was no convincing me. Enough chances were being taken in one day. Pizza, I decided, would not be added to that list.

My nurse introduced herself as “Dee,” a name I’d never heard before.

“How do you spell that?” I asked. “Is it a single letter?”

“D-E-E,” she replied.

“That’s nice,” I said. “But I think with a name like that it would be easier if you just wrote a capital D on your papers.”

She laughed. “You’re probably right.”

I later wrote her a thank-you card and I spelled it simply “D,” to prove that it was a more efficient way of spelling her name.

She was a really friendly nurse, joking with me, making me feel comfortable, checking on me regularly, telling me that when I came out from my surgery, I could play the portable Nintendo 64 the hospital had.

“Do you guys have Mario Kart?” I asked.

“We sure do!” She pointed to a boy in the bed across from me who was playing the Nintendo 64.

I was so jealous. This was the coolest hospital I had ever been to. I wanted a portable N-64 for my house!

After several hours had passed and my pastor paid a visit and prayed with my family, a woman came in with medicine for me to take. She watched me swallow it, and then she asked if I felt tired. I wondered if this was the anesthesia, and I resolved that I was going to show them all that I was a medical anomaly and was impervious to the power of the supposed anesthesia that would force me to sleep.

I could fight sleep on any day. I knew I’d be able to fight this measly little medicine.

Whatever it was that they gave me really didn’t seem to have an effect on me, so I told her I didn’t feel anything at all.

Just twenty minutes later, though, they sent a man in to wheel me to the Operating Room, and the last thing I remember from the ride was him backing me up into the elevator, and the doors closing.

There are small gaps in my memory.

I remember being transferred to a table, sitting upright, holding my stuffed animal dog, and a mask being placed on my face. I remember people in gowns with gloves and masks that made them look like foreign aliens standing around me looking down on me. I remember the anesthesiologist asking my dog’s name. After I told him the name of the dog, I was supposed to count to ten.

Another game. I wouldn’t sleep. I’d fight it. I loved games.

My dad later told me that he and my mom watched as I tried to answer, and I managed to say, “Sp-sp….SPREHCKLESSSS,” slurring my words, as I fell backwards, several nurses catching me so I wouldn’t hit my head on the table. I went out, the staff members in the room chuckling.

My parents were escorted out, where they waited three hours for what was supposed to take one and a half hours. During the surgery, they found I had 6 extra pathways in my heart, not 2-3 like they’d predicted. It took far longer than planned.

During that time, my godparents arrived and kept my parents company.

“She did well,” I heard a woman saying.

“When will she wake up?” A familiar voice, much closer to me asked. I recognized it as my godmother’s voice.

“She should wake up soon. Any moment now. Let us know when you see her move.”

I felt so tired. Everything in my body said, “Go back to sleep. Rest.”

I tried to move my body, but nothing responded. I had no control over my muscles. I couldn’t even wiggle a finger or toe.

I wondered if I had actually tried or simply thought about trying to move and merely found it too exhausting.

Soon, I realized, I could move my eyelids a little. I wondered if I should wiggle my eyelids more to show them I was awake.

“No,” I decided. “I’ll let them think I’m still asleep so I can just lay here in peace a little longer. The sooner I let them know I’m awake, the sooner they will swarm around me and ask me questions that I don’t have the energy to answer.”

I tried to swallow, but I found myself unable to. My throat hurt so badly. Then, I became aware of a sharp pain in my heels. I needed to have pain medicine.

Finally, I opened my eyes. Bright, white light blinded me. My mom and godmother were there hovering over me.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” they said.

“Hey,” I tried to say, but nothing came out.

“What was that?”

“My throat hurts,” I said, but again, nothing but air came out.

“It’s from the intubation,” one of the nurses said. “She was on a respirator during the surgery to keep her breathing. We’ll get her some medicine for the pain in just a moment.”

“My heels hurt,” I complained, and I had to repeat it three times in my godmother’s ear until she finally understood and looked to my mom and said, “Her heels. She says her heels hurt.”

A nurse came quickly and elevated them on pillows, so they were hovering over the bed.

“Hey there,” my cardiologist appeared in my line of vision.

“Do you want some pizza?”

What kind of nightmare was this? No, I didn’t want the pizza! Was this what they did to the boy at my church? They pizza poisoned him after the surgery? No wonder he threw up.

“Nooooooo!” I moaned. Everybody started laughing and I realized my mom must have shared the card with them.

They moved me into my room, back to my original bed. I didn’t want to play the Nintendo 64 anymore. I was too tired.

“I need you to know that for the next 5 hours, you’re not allowed to move AT ALL,” Dee informed me.

“Why not?” I asked hoarsely.

“Your arteries are too fragile right now from the surgery. We don’t want to let you have any internal bleeding or allow any blood clots to break loose. We’ll let you go home today as long as you promise not to move at all. You call me if you want to shift positions in your bed, okay? I’ll make sure you do it safely. Do we have a deal?”

I nodded.

I wouldn’t move at all. I didn’t want to die from a blood clot. I’d heard about those from the medical shows my mom watched.

They propped me up in bed and let me pick from a menu. I hadn’t eaten all day, and they were saying I needed food in my body. Macaroni and cheese and Ginger Ale, I’d decided.

When the soda arrived, it was in a kid-sized cup with a straw. I took a sip, and my mouth was still so dry from being intubated that the carbonation bubbled up and spilled down my chin and chest. My mom laughed, and I cried.

“What’s wrong with me?” I asked despairingly.

“Nothing, honey,” she laughed again. “Look at you, you’re a mess!” She helped clean me up and gave me another tentative sip. “Small sips,” she said, smiling. I obeyed, and I managed to keep it all in my mouth that time. The bubbles felt good on my sore, dry throat.

I had bandages on my neck and leg from where they’d put in the catheters which would need to be changed eventually on a daily basis. There were five holes in my leg and two holes in my neck. A cardiologist vampire had bitten me.

That night, I returned home with my parents, and I slept beside my mom in bed. I’m not sure where my dad ended up sleeping. At the time, I didn’t have the energy to think or worry about it. I was just glad to not be alone while I slept.

When I awoke the next day, it was time for my bandages to be changed, and it was the worst pain I’d ever felt. The places were so tender, and I was glad when it was over and the new bandages were in place.

As the next few days passed, I got to feeling much better, the anesthesia out of my system, the sites of the catheter insertions less tender, and that Sunday, I was running around at church with my friends.

“Don’t run!” The overprotective moms were all ordering me. “You’re not supposed to run yet! Your heart!”

“I’m fine!” I ignored them, finishing my game of tag before my mom snagged me and told me to stop running.

“Aw man!” I exclaimed, bummed.

“A little longer,” she informed me. I nodded. A little longer. I could make it a little longer without running.

I did, and I when I was healed, I returned to UCSF every six months for check-ups. Everything came up clear. They said I had only a 2% chance of ever having another episode.

I was so relieved. I was eternally grateful for my Nurse Dee, my cardiologist, and for all of the people who had helped to give me a normal, healthy life.

I was better. I couldn’t believe it. I was so glad.

“I think I want to be a nurse one day,” I told my parents after my surgery.

“You should talk with some of the ladies at church,” they told me. “Many of them are nurses, and very good at it.” They named several women, one of whom was one of my friend’s moms, S.

Every year at summer camp, that woman was the camp nurse, and I always loved going to her with my friends or cabin-mates who had gotten hurt. I found so much satisfaction in observing her, seeing how she so lovingly and carefully tended to their wounds, compassionately gave them their inhalers, or sat and listened to them so attentively. She was so good at wiping away tears, so kind, and I thought, “If I become a nurse, I want to become one like her.”

About seven years later, on Christmas Eve, I was at home with my family.

Many people, however, were at my church to see the big Christmas Eve production they put on each year.

The pre-schoolers were in their classroom rehearsing, when their teacher, the nurse from my summer camps all those years before, was practicing their Christmas songs with them, getting them ready to go perform for their parents.

Little did we all know, however, in just several brief moments, everything would change.

Before all of the pre-school children who were rehearsing in the music room, she collapsed, and even though there were EMT’s present in the congregation that night, they couldn’t save her.

Her heart had failed.

Everybody was devastated. I still am, to this day, thinking about the beautiful, talented, loving woman that this world lost that night. I think about the ideal mom my friend had lost.

I cried. I cried for her daughter’s pain. I couldn’t imagine losing my mom. I couldn’t believe that this woman, the woman who made others’ lives so much better, who saved lives, as a nurse, had lost her own. It seemed so unfair, so brutal.

“She had supraventricular tachycardia,” My parents told me one night before I went to bed. “She never had a cardiac ablation like you did, Bec.”

“But if she had, would she have lived?”

“I don’t know,” They replied. “She would have had a better chance.”

“How come I didn’t die?” I asked them, referring to the times I’d gone into my episodes, my “heart attacks.”

“God has plans for each of us. But you were younger. Hearts are different when they are younger. They’re more resilient.”

I couldn’t believe it.

For me, this condition gave me a renewed energy for life. I’d been given a life by the hand of my doctors, by the gift of medicine, and ultimately, by the hand of God. But for whatever reason, a woman with the very same condition as me lost her life when her precious heart stopped beating, the heart that had beat everyday before as she touched the lives of those around her.

On Christmas Eve, she went to be with Jesus, the evening in which we are supposed to celebrate the gift God gave us in Christ. Instead, that night, we grieved the gift we had in this world that we’d lost, and we worshiped and thanked God that we were blessed by her for as long as we were.

Supraventricular Tachycardia. For some, it means one thing, for others, it means something entirely different.

For me, it means many things.

It’s a big part of why I want to become a nurse one day, to follow in the footsteps of people like those ER nurses who pushed the life-saving adenosine into my veins, the pediatric nurses who cared for me after my surgery, the OR nurses who were there handing tools to the cardiologist when she needed them, and finally, like the nurse who so lovingly cared for the kids I went to church with. She cleaned bloody scrapes and soothed asthmatic lungs. She wiped away tears on chubby little cheeks and sang with pre-schoolers on Christmas Eve, celebrating her Savior one last time before she went to be with Him.

Supraventricular Tachycardia. It’s not just a heart condition. It’s so much more.


Copyright 2013


4 responses to “I Had a Heart Attack in the Second Grade

  1. I also have WPW syndrome, but I was diagnosed in a routine ECG before I ever suffered an attack. When my first attack happened (aged 40) I knew what it was. I can’t imagine how you must have felt as a child.

    • Wow, what a coincidence that I stumbled across your blog and we shared this in common! I am glad you were able to get it diagnosed before you had an attack, because at age 40, I can imagine it would be very frightening. I was lucky that for my first episode because I was so young, I simply thought, “huh, well, life throws something new at you everyday. Maybe it’s not such a big deal.” Of course, my second episode had me through the roof since I knew what it was and that it wasn’t normal. What did you do as a treatment option (if you don’t mind my asking)?

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