Big Heart

There are probably three parts of your body that you always want to stay healthy.  Your reasons may vary from essential life function to essential social function, but if a doctor were to address any of your brain, heart or genitalia by saying, “There’s something wrong,” you’d probably think, “Oh god, please not my genitalia.”

That being said, my brain and genitalia are fine.

So what’s wrong with my heart? It’s too big. At least the left side is…or so it’s been debated.  How did I find this out?  I got a physical for the first time in probably 10 years.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a heart murmur?”  My doctor, Maureen, was moving her stethoscope all over my back and chest, mumbling and “M-hm-ing” to herself.

“Uh, no.  That can’t be right– check again.”

Maureen made me lie down, sit up, breathe deeply, now hold it!  Breathe out, pretend I was having a bowel movement, hop on one foot while humming the national anthem– all to confirm that she was in fact correct, I have a heart murmur.

“Lots of people have heart murmurs but I want you to go get an echocardiogram just to make sure.”

That sounds like one of those stress tests from House where the patient runs on a treadmill until their eyes start bleeding.  But I bet I could write about it…

“It’s like an MRI for your heart.  It’ll give us a picture and audio of what is going on so we can see if there’s reason to worry.”

Never mind, that’s boring.

I scheduled my appointment, asked the boyfriend to go with, made the obligatory phone call to my parents, “…so, if I die, this is why,” and then I started to freak out.

I first envisioned myself pre-op, laying on a gurney blinded by bright lights while saying goodbye to tearful friends and family.  Because that’s helpful.  Then I had nightmares from which my BF had to shake me awake.  Because that’s what happens when you obsess about something for hours on-end.  Then I decided this was happening to someone else.  Again, because that’s helpful.

To help with my disconnection, the technician who performed my echo told me there was nothing wrong.

“I’m not supposed to tell you this, but it’s Friday and I don’t want you to ruin your weekend because you’re waiting on your doctor’s response.  You’re fine.  You have a slight murmur, but you’ll live.  Keep exercising and eating the way you do, you’ll be fine.  Your heart is functioning perfectly.”

You hear that?  My heart is perfect.  PERFECT.  Who gets told their heart is perfect?  Me.  Nothing to worry about.

I did the dirty bird touchdown dance in my head.  Then five days later I got an email.

“Lauren, I have the results back from your echo (attached) and it appears that you do indeed have a heart murmur and that your left ventricle is severely enlarged.  I’d like you to see a cardiologist….”


WTF??  But I’m healthy!  How can this happen?  Why did this happen?  OMG, I really will need open-heart surgery.  What if I can’t run?  Will my eyes bleed?  I could have had a heart attack this weekend!

I spent a day and a half buried down the rabbit hole, scared that my life as I knew it might be over.

What if I’m prohibited from all physical activity?  What will I do?  Will I get fat?

If you just tilted your head at the “fat” comment, that’s the appropriate response.  I was far from appropriate.  I noticed every heartbeat and fretted every dizzy spell.  I got hyper-sensitive when the BF wanted to do something with his friends.  I considered moving “home” to San Diego.  Once I had successfully torn my GI tract to shreds with stress and worry, I again, disassociated from the situation.  The possibilities were unacceptable to me, so I decided they didn’t apply.

I’m fine.  I have always been fine; I will always BE fine.

Because life is just that simple, right?

As my small act of defiance, I continued my life as-is.  I still rode the bike, I still pushed myself through workouts, I still drank coffee and wine and I still stressed out about things that didn’t really matter.  I did all of these things because I would be fine.

Fine gosh-dang it!  Fine!

But that didn’t stop me from thinking about all of the physical changes I’d experienced over the last year.

– I used to run half marathons without training and now I could barely run six miles without stopping because I was out of breath.

– I frequently got dizzy during the workouts I used to breeze through.

– I was tired the majority of the time.

– My skin was pale.  Super pale.  Paler than it had ever been.

– My blood pressure was really low and everytime someone measured it, it was lower than the time before.

But I’m fine, and anyone (ahem, boyfriend) who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Then I went to the cardiologist.

As the BF and I sat down in death’s lobby, where every tenant was old, decrepit and lurching toward their pearly gates, my BF grabbed my hand and gave me a look that was almost comical.

“What are you doing here?”  We both laughed– it was so absurd it was funny.  The other patients had grey skin and thinning hair, I could still pass for 25 on a good day.  The other patients couldn’t breathe without wheezing, my breath flowed easily.  The other patients creaked and cracked when they twitched, I was limber and well-oiled.

This must be some kind of joke.  God?  If you’re listening, I’m not amused.

A nurse called my name, took my blood pressure, I noted the results were lower than they’d been the week before, and then we waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  And then just as we started joking about having sex in an exam room (I told you I was far from appropriate), a white-haired gentleman burst through the door with power and authority and got right down to business.

“I’ve reviewed your tests, I’ve shown them to a handful of my colleagues and the truth is, we don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

Sweet.  I’m assuming you’ll be billing my insurance company for this?

“I want to do another test so we can see the back valve.”

Of course you do.  I’m sure this will be painless and take no time at all.

“I’m going to bring in my colleague because he’s actually going to be the one who does the test.”

The doctor went out and two minutes later walked back in with one of the most awkward human beings alive.  He smelled like “grandpa”, didn’t make eye contact, shuffled his feet and his words and the icing on the cake– he had a wandering eye.

Yo, dude, that doesn’t affect your ability to SEE does it?  I mean, there’s some organization somewhere that makes sure you guys– you know, the doctors with our lives in your hands?– that you can actually see what you’re doing.  Even the DMV does that.

“Normally when there’s a heart murmur, it sounds like this… your heart is functioning perfectly normal… so we’re going to stick a camera down your esophagus–”


I was drifting in and out of focus but “down your esophagus” caught my attention.

“You’ll be under anesthesia, so you won’t feel anything.”

I’m sorry, you’re sticking a what, down my what?  Can you even find my esophagus?  What if I cough mid-procedure?

The distinguished gentleman excused himself so the awkward guy could examine me and as he clumsily pawed his meaty hands across my chest and back, slapping and kneading like I was ground beef, I kept choking on my laugh.

I guess this answers the whole “seeing” question.

I’d never been manhandled like that at any point in my life, but when Mr. Awkward Pants left the exam room, my BF was the one who was visibly uncomfortable.  I felt for him– no man should ever have to watch his girlfriend get tenderized like a tray of meatballs.

“You think he had trouble telling my boobs from my ribs?”

After a good laugh that was interrupted twice by the nurse trying to re-occupy the room, I got dressed and we made my appointment for the “non-invasive,” aka super invasive test that would allow the doctors to observe my heart from another angle and probably still not get any answers.

Great day.

“Oh, and before you leave today, you’ll need to go downstairs, get a full metabolic panel [i.e. blood test] and a chest ray.”

Needles.  This just keeps getting better.

As I prepared to get stuck for the umpteenth time in a few weeks I started to wonder about hypochondriacs and people who like being sick.

There should be a psych eval that goes along with these tests.

“Do you want to watch or look away?”  The technician was a young Asian kid who probably thought drawing blood was the coolest thing ever.  As he tied the tourniquet, my face turned a putrid shade of green.

“If I watch, I’ll faint.”  If I even think about this I’ll faint.

“Well, turn away then.”  He swabbed my inner elbow and a teaspoon of bile rose to the back of my throat.

“Ok,” I said weakly.

“It’ll just be a small pinch,” he offered as he plunged the needle into my arm and began siphoning blood from my veins at a rapid rate.

“How much are you taking?”

“Three vials.”

Oh gaaawwwd.

I started to feel woozy.

“All finished!  You want a lollipop?”

What, am I 12?  I want two, damn it!  No, three.  One for each vial.

The BF and I went home and fretted, tossed and turned about the upcoming test for about 24 hours– what will they find?  What won’t they find?  What if something is seriously wrong?

Then the BF decided to call in the big guns– his friend’s dad is a world renowned cardiologist who is not a fan of over-testing just for the sake of scaring a patient.  We sent him my test results and in less than an hour I had my diagnosis.

“Someone over there doesn’t know how to do math.”


“The measurement they’re looking at to determine your heart is enlarged?  Well if you cube it, you get [x] and that’s within the normal range.”

So you’re saying someone got an “MD” without being able to do third grade math.  Three cheers for American education!

“Your heart murmur is probably dietary related.  I’d go get a second opinion.”

Wait, aren’t you my second opinion?  Do I trust someone who’s just looking at a piece of paper and not my body?  Why is this so complicated?!  Mom!  I don’t want to be an adult anymore.

As I was debating whether or not to push back the test or just cancel it altogether, starting over with a new doctor, the cardiologist’s office called.

“We’ve canceled the test, you’re just severely anemic.”

I like how you’ve used “just” and “severely” in the same sentence.

“What does that mean?”

“It means more blood tests and you’ll have to do a stool test at home.”

Right.  Because what’s the margin of error on that?

To be continued…..

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