So, in case you hadn’t heard, I passed out while driving a month ago after experiencing heart palpitations. That’s the short answer, wait for the long answer!
About eight years ago, I started having heart palpitations whenever I had a lot of caffeine. My doctor said it probably was a condition called supraventricular tachycardia:
He said it was harmless, not all that uncommon (his wife has it), and it’s more of an annoyance than anything. He said stimulants can trigger it, and cutting back on the caffeine would reduce the frequency of it happening. So I did, and it did, but it’s something I’ve been dealing with about once a month ever since then. The way to fix it when it occurs is easy-take a deep breath, cross my arms over my chest, and bear down, hard. This is one way to do a “vasalva maneuver,” which forces the heart to correct itself.
(One way they can tell you have SVT instead of a more serious problem is that SVT usually response to the vasalva maneuver, whereas some other defect in the heart wouldn’t.)
Well, on June 12th of this year, I had a drink from Starbucks after not having any caffeine for about a week. While driving to a convention, I felt something like the heart palpitations that SVT causes. I took my pulse to verify that yes, I was having palpitations, and decided I’d pull pull over and do a compression to stop it. Except the next thing I knew, I was crashing through trees bordering a wetland area–I had passed out. When I came to, I was still rolling, so I brought the car to a stop (with the help of some friendly small trees). I was completely unharmed, though my car had a broken windshield and some cosmetic damage around the headlights.
At first I thought I may have fallen asleep while driving, but I didn’t remember being tired. I finally pieced together that the last thing I remembered was taking my pulse and recognizing I was having palpitations. Apparently, this time they had knocked me out (or so I thought). This had NEVER happened before, and my first decision was to swear off of caffeine, forever. My second was about how lucky I was that nobody was hurt–I had been driving from the mall area near where I work to the downtown area where the convention was, and happened to be passing along the completely unoccupied area on the edge of town that bordered a wetlands. If there was a place to pass out while driving, this was it–no people or buildings nearby to crash into.
Still, it scared me, I had never been betrayed by my body like that before. So I made an appointment with a cardiologist.
Dr. Aviles listened to my story and agreed that it sounded like SVT (I had forgotten the name, but he was instantly able to name it based on my symptoms), although he had never heard of anyone passing out from it. Well… turns out there’s a nerve in your neck called the vagus nerve.
And pressing on it can cause a rapid drop in blood pressure. Which, combined with my racing heart, is what knocked me out, not the SVT. In other words, I used Mr. Spock’s Vulcan Nerve Pinch on myself. :p
Dr. Aviles also told me SVT is treatable with medication or a simple outpatient surgery. He had me meet with his partner, Dr. Heywood, who specializes in the electrical systems of the heart (Aviles is more about the plumbing than the electrical). Dr. Heywood agreed it probably was SVT, and arranged for an echocardiogram test to rule out any other problems with my heart. The nurses joked about having to run these tests on a “whippersnapper” (as their typical patient is in his 60s on up). Needless to say I passed with flying colors–nothing abnormal about my EKG or sonogram either at rest or after 10 minutes of exercise. Conclusion: I have SVT.
As I’d rather not deal with SVT any more (it is an annoyance, and I miss caffeinated drinks), nor do I want to be on medication for the rest of my life to control this, I decided I’d go with the surgery, as both doctors feel I’m a good candidate (I’m young and healthy) and it has upwards of a 90% chance of success with only minor risk of complications.
The surgery involves running a sensor up one vein in my groin to monitor the electrical activity in my heart, giving me a caffeine-like stimulant to trigger the SVT, mapping the area that’s causing the problem, then zapping it with some microwaves to burn out the kooky nerve that’s causing the irregular heartbeat. The procedure is called radio frequency ablation, described here:
The cool thing is I’ll only be mildly sedated, so I’ll be awake while they’re doing this. If they weren’t going to have my shirt off I’d probably try to find some way to have a prosthetic alien burst out of my chest during the procedure just to freak them out; as it is I’ll probably have to be content to drawing pictures on my groin area with markers so they get a surprise when they aim for the vein. ;)
The date for this is August 4th at some horrible hour like 7 a.m. It’s an outpatient surgery… I go home that day, take the next day off, don’t do any strong exertion for the next few days, come back in a week for a checkup. It’s that simple.
Don’t be worried. I’m not worried. My aunt and uncle are in the medical field and they say they’ve seen this done on many, many older people with no problems, and I’m about eleventy times more healthy than any of them, so there’s nothing to worry about. It’s all going to be fine. And it means I have one hell of a story when we’re all done. :)