After a harrowing health crisis, I was forced to reexamine my life – and the way I managed my own troubled heart
I woke up on the gym floor — drenched in sweat, knees bent and spread apart, wearing oversize gym shorts and dorky white high-tops — to see the paramedics and a cute, blond employee from 24 Hour Fitness staring at my unimpressive nether regions inadvertently exposed for the world’s mockery.
Ten minutes prior, I had been running two miles on the treadmill. In the last 25 seconds of the run, my heart rate decided to abruptly accelerate. I knew I only had about 30 seconds before passing out and hitting the mat. Ever since high school, I have suffered from supra ventricular tachycardia, in which a faulty electrical connection in the heart randomly degenerates into either abnormally fast or irregular heartbeats. The condition affects 20 percent of adults, predominantly seniors, but also young, healthy people, even Olympic athletes.
The average heart rate is 60 to 80 beats per minute. When the paramedics arrived to cart me away, mine was breaking 200. Later, in the emergency room, the nurses pumped me full of drugs, but my heart refused all pharmaceutical suitors. Eventually, my ER doctor, who looked like the Eastern European love child of Danny DeVito and Newman from “Seinfeld,” ordered a cardioversion, which involves defibrillating the heart back to a normal rhythm.
Being defibrillated is like swallowing an angry, stubborn mule. He faces your back, digs in his heels and then furiously kicks out his hind legs, extending your chest outward. I was supposed to be given general anesthesia for the three times they zapped me, but I woke up right before they yelled, “Clear!”
The next morning, the Eastern European doctor used professional medical language to explain the events: “Sheet, man. We thought you were having a heart attack! That was some scary sheet.”
It’s not something you want to hear at the age of 31. For years, I had been micromanaging my life and meticulously engineering my relationships to avoid disappointment and pain. And yet irony, with her unsubtle humor, knocked me on my ass that day at 24 Hour Fitness.
“Buddy, this was a freakish episode,” my regular cardiologist told me. “It’s time we finally did that ablation we’ve been talking about for years.”
There’s a reason I’d avoided it for so long. An ablation uses radio-frequency electrodes inserted through the groin arteries to locate the source of the irregularity and then “burn” the abnormal part of your heart. The success rate is around 60 to 70 percent. The idea of people sticking needles through my groin and messing with my heart was about as appealing as genital herpes or tasteless vegan cookies.
I decided not to tell my family. I feared it would give them a premature heart attack and cause unnecessary drama and stress. (In fact, I still haven’t told my family or about 99 percent of my friends or acquaintances — until now.) Instead, I lied and said I was headed to New York City for a two-day business trip. I packed up my reliable Samsonite with clothes, toiletries and a few comic books I picked up the day before from my local shop.
But I still worried. What if something went wrong? The night before the operation, May 15, I emailed a couple of friends to give them a heads up just in case the operation somehow failed and I arrived on the other end of surgery a South Asian Frankenstein with a penchant for chai and mangoes. I emailed and called a few literary mentors and indulged in a melodramatic moment of gratitude.
I also recalled an article discussing the final tweets and Facebook posts of celebrities who abruptly died. I did not want my final missive on this planet to be about an article from the Guardian on the weight of Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai. So I summoned my inner Yoda to produce wisdom in case this was a one-way trip. Reporters in the future who might be assigned to write about my brief, wondrous, awe-inspiring life would have a sexy lead.
I decided upon the following: “Be Good. Do Good. Live Good.”
Finally, I wrote my living trust dividing up all of my wealth and assets garnered over 31 years of existence and left a physical copy with detailed instructions for my friend, whom I named as the trustee.
It was possibly the most pathetic trust of all time. My assets included a ’97 Toyota Camry on the verge of a coma, an old Hewlett-Packard laptop, my PS3, some comics, a few clothes, and whatever modest money remained in my two bank accounts. After rereading it, I could only laugh.
The procedure itself took about six hours and required six defibrillations. But it couldn’t happen until they got rid of all my hair. They had to shave — a lot. So much so that the original attendant became tired and had to “tap out” and be replaced by a younger colleague who finished the task.
“Am I the hairiest guy you’ve had in a while?” I asked.
The man paused, awkwardly smiled, and said, “No, no.” Then, he conceded, “Yes – yes, you are.”
But the procedure was successful. Apparently, I had a “left lateral bypass tract.” It’s complicated, but basically, my heartbeat had degenerated into Deep House, rave remixes.
A month later, my cardiologist performed a checkup. “Buddy, you’ll hopefully never have to see me again. Everything looks great. You’re brand-new.”
I exhaled. I was overcome with relief and gratitude to be normal again. I relished the newfound privilege of life without Skrillex performing his music in my heart. Foolishly, I ignored my doctor’s advice to rest and immediately resumed my workaholic schedule. My body cried for a timeout, but I continued to neglect it.
Then came the onslaught of what we Muslims call the waswasas — the whispering doubts and questions that attack us when we’re at our weakest and most vulnerable.
Why did I not tell anyone about the operation? Who were my close friends, if any? Was there something defective in me that kept people at bay, or had I simply put up barriers because I was unwilling to trust anyone?
I wore loneliness as an armor to protect myself from pain, the inevitable companion of love. However, loneliness does not comfort you as you’re lying on a gurney wearing gaudy gym shorts, sweating profusely, and being defibrillated. What delusional grandeur made me think I could tame the unpredictable, mercurial and gloriously messy ride known as life?
I wondered how much of this had to do with my South Asian upbringing, where sharing feelings is seen as weakness to be avoided. I realized communities who repress their emotions end up burying their problems under the bed with a fake smile plastered on their faces. We project strength but mask our vulnerability and fear, a bait-and-switch that ends in spiritual and emotional isolation — a sad inheritance for future generations.
I decided I would gift a new narrative to my heirs. In order to rewrite the story, I needed to finally lower the gates again and expose myself to love — and pain — after years of being emotionally isolated and guarded.
Perhaps telling this story is the necessary step in opening myself up more. After all, I’ve let myself be incised, and I came out on the other end with a healthy, remixed heartbeat. Now I can climb back up on the treadmill and keep running my race — without the fear of passing out and exposing my nether region.
Wajahat Ali is the award winning playwright of "The Domestic Crusaders," one of the first major plays about the American Muslim experience published by Mcsweeney's. He is the lead author of the investigative report "Fear Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America" produced by Center for American Progress. He is currently working on a TV pilot with author Dave Eggers about an American Muslim cop. He is writing his first movie screenplay with filmmaker Joshua Seftel ("War Inc."). He blogs at GOATMILK. More Wajahat Ali.
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