My True Hearticle Story
By Ava Francis-Hall
On January 19, 2017, I woke up in a brightly lit room on a hospital bed with my parents’ concerned faces hovering over me.
I had supraventricular tachycardia (SVT), which in simple terms meant I had an irregular heartbeat that affected my physical activity. Imagine running around a track when suddenly your heart is increasing to 200 beats per minute, your vision becomes cloudy with a black filter, and your back aches. This is what I felt when I exercised, and it began to scare me as it happened more often. I soon visited CPMC hospital in San Francisco where they diagnosed me with SVT. The incidence of SVT is approximately 35 cases per 100,000 patients.
I didn't know what to expect from this diagnosis. My doctor, Dr. Sarina Behera, told me I could either go on medication or have the procedure right away. I was apprehensive about the procedure, so I opted to go on the medication instead. I was on the medication for about a year, and my symptoms did not lessen. In fact, they stayed the same. It came to a point where I realized I needed to have the procedure, or risk my heart health and my freedom to exercise.
It was the fall of 2016 and I was hustling on the volleyball court during my freshman season. I was a setter, which meant that I was involved in every single point to set up the spike. We were in the final points of a game against a team that I don't remember. The tensions were high but the expectations higher; we needed to win the game. I remember the moment so clearly like a knife carved it into my memory. I was in the middle of a play when my heart started beating...and beating...and beating so fast, like the wings of a bird flapping in the sky. The words of my doctor echoed in my head as the play moved in slow motion around me.
“When the SVT kicks in, you have to lie down immediately. The longer the SVT happens, the more chance that you could faint,” Dr. Behera had told me.
An internal battle took place. I needed to be safe, but I knew that it would be incredibly detrimental to exit the court at this pivotal moment.
My inner turmoil was decidedly abandoned as I chose to follow through on the guidance of my doctor. I had signaled to my coach that I needed to be subbed out, and I defeatedly slumped over to the sidelines. The faces of my concerned teammates made me feel worse. I didn't have the energy to explain my condition, so I pointed to my heart and sunk in the chair beneath me. Every accelerated beat that pumped in my chest made me increasingly nervous that I was one beat closer to passing out. This episode was the most prolonged I had ever had.
Following this scare, I knew that I needed to take one step further than my medication - I needed to get the procedure done.
I had an EKG performed, followed by an ultrasound. Dr. Bahara concluded that I had SVT, and she located the extra pathway that was causing the problems in my heart. She warned me, however, that if I had Wolff Parkinson White syndrome, a disorder that was hard to detect, there was an increased chance that I would not survive through the procedure. I wasn’t worried about living through the surgery, as the doctor gave me a 99 percent reassurance I would wake up.
This new piece of information was unnerving, yet I was determined to have a normal heartbeat.
The day before the surgery, my parents drove us all through the wind and rain to Stanford’s Children Hospital in Palo Alto. I was born in that hospital, and the dramatic little voice inside my head said, “This could be where you die too.”
Once we checked into Stanford, my fears were tamed. We met with the anesthesiologist and the surgeon who would be with me during the procedure. While they repeated most of the information already told to me by my San Francisco doctor, the surgeon caught me by surprise when he said there was a possibility a defibrillator could be used. I left rattled, but mostly anxious about the following day’s events.
The next day, I woke up and put on a pair of sweats and an old t-shirt. The previous day I had gotten my eyebrows done, because when I was operated on I had to look fabulous, dammit! We arrived at the hospital, and were led to a hospital bed. The hospital room was a grayish color lined with beds on the perimeters of the room. I didn’t know what to expect. I changed into a hospital gown and laid on the bed for a period of 15 minutes that could have been 5 hours if my my mom hadn't been nervously announcing the time.
Two nurses came over for the final stages of preparation. They inserted an IV into my inner arm after multiple painful tries of sticking it into my hand. Then came the sedative. I felt it immediately, coursing through my veins and into my brain. I started giggling uncontrollably as they whisked me away to the procedure room. I felt as if I was floating on a cloud.
I arrived in the brightly-lit room full of large people in masks. A doctor came up to me and asked what my favorite song was. I replied with a slurred “Multi-Love” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and soon my favorite song was blasting through the room. I felt so genuinely happy as I closed my eyes. Maybe it was the sedative. It was definitely the sedative.
I woke up to find my parents hovering over me. It took about 10 seconds to remember where I was, and as I sat straight up, the blood rushed to my head. The nurse hurried over and told me to lay back, it would be an hour or so before I could walk. Once I laid back and calmed down, a severe pain shot through my left eye. I closed and scrunched my eyes together, hoping the pain would dissipate but it remained persistent no matter how I positioned myself. The nurse told me that they didn't fully tape my left eye, and so a millimeter of my eyeball had sat partially open for my 4-hour procedure. Ouch.
After four of the most uncomfortable and painful hours of my life, I left through the sliding hospital doors with an upgraded heart and a tiny bottle of eye medication.
The next day, as I rolled up to my home and parked in the driveway, the feeling of absolute peace of mind settled within me.
There are a unique individuals on the Novato High campus who face these decisions of surgery, medication, or who choose not to interfere with their body.
Sophomore Tatiana Oliver has a heart condition similar to mine, called brugada syndrome in which there is an abnormality in the rhythm of the heart. She isn't on medication and has not undergone surgery.
“It’s a condition that causes sudden death, which sounds super scary and it is super scary, but at the same time I don't feel many symptoms daily, so it's something I can really push aside until I die. I think I'll get the surgery [at 18] so I can survive and live a full happy and healthy life,” said Oliver.
Sophomore Sage Patel was born profoundly deaf, and at age 2 her left ear was operated on and at age 4 the right ear was operated on. “[The surgery] opened up a whole new world for me, I can be involved in society. I can also be involved in the deaf community.”
If you are scared or feel alone in your body’s troubles, just know that you are part of a bigger community that understands and will support you. I know that in those weeks prior to and after the surgery, I only told my close friends about my procedure, in fear of being looked at differently or having a pity train follow me with every interaction. Over time, I became more comfortable with discussing my experience with more friends and family, but it is a long road to both physical and emotional recovery.