We Have an Invisible Heart That Nobody Talks About

In the summer of 2018, I had a burnout. Today, when everyone talks about what it means to be a man, I want to tell the story of my own vulnerability that could be the story of every young man out there.

One Sunday morning, I felt ill. Worse than ever. I opened all the windows to let the air in, and laid down on the bed. The drum beating in my chest was getting stronger and stronger, taking my breath, sight and hearing away. It seemed like in the end it was going to drain me of the life that was all squeezed into my chest. It lasted for five minutes, ten minutes, twenty minutes, it wouldn’t stop. Before calling the ambulance, I put on my good, summer clothes – my white tennis player’s clothes –, I put my shoes on and trembling, I sat down on the edge of the bed. Everything around me was was shining clean, as if it were a red-letter day.

I have finally called to ask for help. It took exactly two seconds until the dispatcher picked up, while I thought that the multiplied heartbeats were doing me more harm than good, blocking the air. In those moments, it seemed to me that I had a heart I wasn’t supposed to have. My voice shaking, I explained to her what was happening and where I lived: “I can’t breathe anymore, I feel my heart bursting out of my chest, it is beating very strongly”, I said. And the drumming in my chest was stronger and stronger, each sound making it furious: the dispatcher’s breath, her voice, devoid of humanity, and my own voice, in the phone call’s echo. “It’s been happening for an hour already”, I added. She then asked me a few questions whose answers would indicate, by my knowledge, a heart attack, and then said that she would send an ambulance right away.

I waited the fifteen minutes leading up to the arrival of the ambulance sitting on a stool in the middle of the house as if I were in a museum, while the white hardwood floors were seemingly scattering a hospital light. I was home alone. The time between the paramedics’ two knocks on the door and the moment I opened it now seems like an eternity. I don’t remember much after that, I admit, other than maybe the moment I sat back down on the edge of the bed and the one that followed the measuring of my blood pressure and pulse. I heard, among other things, the words heart attack. I heard it once or twice. Or maybe, in those moments, it was playing in my mind like a song: heart attack, heart attack, heart attack.

After having checked my blood pressure, the diagnosis came, for lack of a better diagnosis: “blood pressure is normal, the pulse is normal”, one of the paramedics said, while the other one was checking out my house. “It is not a panic attack” he said from the start. “This is what they want you to think, this depression thing, it’s an invented illness”, the same paramedic added. He then proceeded to explain to me the theory of thyroid hormones, of hyperactivity, and finally he recommended a thyroid ultrasound. I felt somewhat relieved, that at least my heart’s indices were normal at that point and I hadn’t had a heart attack.

The cases of men with thyroid problems are generally rare, but considering that there are at least two known cases of thyroid problems in my family, I made an appointment the next day with the endocrinology department. Meanwhile, I calmed myself down, I went for a walk, it was almost raining but not really. It was the only episode of palpitations that day.

The second attack during that time, came the second day however, while I was waiting to go in for the thyroid ultrasound at the endocrinology department. An elderly woman, who was complaining about acute abdominal pains, was yelling, asking to be seen by a doctor. Her high-pitched voice was resonating through the entire clinic and with it, the drum in my chest, that already seemed to have replaced the heart. I had to make great efforts to receive enough oxygen to stay alive. The small quake happening in my chest – extended to my eardrums, added to the roaring fuelled by the yelling of the woman with abdominal pains – only lasted a few minutes. It actually lasted until the endocrinology doctor called my name.

I went in her office and I told her what had happened to me. She looked at me reluctantly as if I had invented an illness to get out of doing something: “I don’t think you have thyroid problems” she said accommodatingly, like a good friend over coffee. “But let’s take an ultrasound to make sure that everything is working within normal parameters”, she added. On the medical report sheet, she wrote: “Right lobe: measurements – AP/T/L 15/18/40mm; echostructure – normoecogenic, homogenous. Isthmus – 3mm, homogenous. Left lobe: measurements – AP/T/L 10/12/40mm; echostructure – normoecogenic, homogenous. Vascularisation with normal bilateral limits.”

The episodes of palpitations and shortness of breath have apparently not been caused by the thyroid, because, as proven, it functions within normal parameters, we both concluded. Following this, out of the blue, she told me that each week, there is at least one man under 35 that comes into her office, with the same symptoms, and ends up checking his thyroid, and then his heart, and then his blood, so on and so forth. She didn’t find a single man yet with thyroid problems, “perhaps they refuse to check where they should”, she added suggestively. This is all she said, nothing more.

However, she recommended that I follow the same path as all the others: thyroid – heart – blood. Therefore, I made an appointment to cardiology for the following day. Later, the day of the heart examination, I had no other episodes of palpitations; it was as if my heart was no longer there, it had disappeared along with the drum in my chest. I got to the clinic in the morning, I immediately entered the office, I took off my clothes and I let myself be connected to the machine’s wires for an electrocardiogram. I, same as the cardiology doctor, was looking at the screen, at the beating heart, it was there, I still had it. It was, perhaps, the first piece of evidence that I had a physical heart, a functioning one. The interpretation of the results came immediately: “EKG within normal limits.” “I have a normal heart, it functions perfectly”, I thought to myself, as if I were at the end of my days, where one would expect to die at any time. “I am young, I exercise, I have to have a healthy heart.” And the path of blood led me to the same conclusion: that I am healthy.

But I am not completely healthy. Neither me, nor you. I have a problem that nobody speaks of, none of the doctors in their shiny offices said what they were maybe supposed to say, and maybe it would have been exactly what I didn’t want to hear. I never made up any of the episodes of palpitations, they existed, and I am thinking that they might return tenfold, in the worst possible moments.

Somebody say it! Why does nobody say it? Our hearts have a little secret that some of the contemporary doctors refuse to talk about, a secret that is not shown in any ultrasound. Next to our physical heart, we have an invisible heart. And we have another problem: us, the young men who one by one went to check our thyroids and our hearts, we have a problem with admitting the existence of such episodes. Because the things we don’t see are not real: anxiety, fatigue, loneliness, panic attacks, and ultimately, depression. Although I was not feeling down during my last episode of palpitations, look, it still happened, I got scared, I asked for help. Case closed, let’s move on with our lives.

I consider myself to be a strong and above all, a rational man. But the fatigue from those months, insidiously accumulating on the background of a busy schedule, added to a lack of sleep and especially due to the extended stress – to which yes, I stood up against when I had to – threw myself at the edge of the bed, powerless and all of a sudden. That state resembled that of the launch of a rocket in space, a rocket coming from the top of my own chest. I was finally diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. And there are many others like me: some of them have already found their diagnosis, others have not.

According to the most recent study, every year, approximately one million Romanians are diagnosed with depression, even though Romanians are still greatly prejudiced when it comes to such a disorder. I don’t want to close the case, at least not my own: I believe I have a duty to myself to at least keep this case open and to prevent any similar episodes. I am still not ashamed, almost 7 months after calling the ambulance in the middle of “an episode with palpitations”. On the contrary, it is proof that I am a strong man, who went through a stressful period and held on, and I am now healing as I would after an open, yet invisible wound, for which I dared to ask for help.

I did not need medication, but I needed the courage to admit what was happening to me and to later try to get better on my own. The heart I saw on the cardiologist’s screen was not sick, but the invisible heart, which is nowhere and everywhere at the same time – in the brain activity, in the chest, in the eyes and the ears, on the skin, in the hair that started vanishing meanwhile. I have an invisible heart, that I forgot to talk about up until now.

This piece was originally published on Dilema veche.

Laurențiu Ion

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