Bradley's lonely heart club

His condition, according to one who has it, is nothing to get heartsick about.

Published January 24, 2000 8:44PM (EST)

One day at lunch around 20 years ago, I felt a strange fluttering in my chest as if my heart had suddenly started bubbling, its normal, regular beat mixed up into a mishmash.

I panicked. Though only about 30 at the time, I feared this might be the start of a heart attack. Every story I'd ever read about a young person dropping dead came straight back into my feverishly racing mind. Soon, I started having trouble breathing, and I folded right over, my head on the table, weakly gesturing for help.

This hoary memory surfaced recently when I read that Bill Bradley has the same heart condition that I have, atrial fibrillation. Bradley said that on four occasions he has felt bad enough to cancel or delay his rigorous campaign schedule.

I can certainly relate: On that first occasion, my lunch mates drove me to a nearby emergency room, where a noticeably nonchalant M.D. listened through his stethoscope. "Your heart is beating out of rhythm a bit. Just try to relax. It should pass in a while."

I let myself take a deep breath (until then I think I had been afraid to breathe deeply, lest my heart explode -- though by breathing shallowly, I essentially caused myself to hyperventilate). Suddenly I realized that I probably could slow my own heart rate down, which is more or less what I then proceeded to do.

After a few more deep breaths, the episode had passed, and I felt normal again. The doctor explained I had just experienced cardiac arrhythmia, an irregular heart beat.

Press reports have raised questions about whether this will affect the public's perception of Bradley's ability to perform the duties of president, should he be elected this coming November. "It can't help but hurt him," said one commentator on a talk show I was half-listening to the other morning. "People will wonder if he can take the stress of the office."

Tying the irregular heartbeat issue to stress was, in my experience at least, a perfectly accurate connection to make, although the idea that anyone would vote against Bradley for this little problem seems silly. Since that first episode at lunch long ago, I've experienced many such fluttery moments. In recent years, the incidents grew in frequency and severity until my physician recommended that I start taking a pill to regulate the heartbeats.

Since then, the problem has essentially disappeared.

Press reports about Bradley, who is just four years older than I am, suggest he experiences a rapid "speedup" in beats -- the same as I did. When the rhythm gets out of whack, the beats seem to overtake each other, almost like racers on a track -- and this is actually a pattern you can see on a printout of a electrocardiogram.

Bradley also takes medication to control this condition, and the most serious recent incident he's reported came on a day when he says that he forgot to take his pill. When my own prescription ran out last week and I thought I was too busy to get it refilled immediately, sure enough, that damn fluttering feeling returned for me, too. Again, I could empathize.

According to the doctors, drinking coffee or alcohol can sometimes provoke arrhythmia, but maintaining a very heavy pace at work or dealing with personally stressful situations of any kind also seemed to bring the problem on for me -- or they did until I started taking the medication. I don't know if the former senator from New Jersey experiences it this way, but the worst part of these episodes was often the aftermath, when I'd feel very tired, which is not exactly convenient in the middle of, say, a long staff meeting -- or when delivering a campaign speech.

So for me, at least, having this little problem led me to develop a type of self-discipline where I would try to will myself to stay as calm as possible in difficult circumstances. If this failed, and my heartbeat started racing out of control, I reverted to the slow, deep breathing I first learned years ago, and simply waited it out. In a bad case, I'd lie down and rest until it passed, although this has the unfortunate effect of seemingly making it easier to feel what is happening inside there, not to mention that lying down is not always possible, especially for a president.

Bradley, ex-athlete that he is, maintains what sounds to be a much more active exercise routine than I do these days, but I still play recreational sports and coach kids' soccer, and this problem has never affected any of that. Running, hiking, skiing, swimming, sports of all kinds don't seem to be any harder to do than they ever were.

Frankly, except for a few discrete episodes, this problem has never been much more than an irritation for me, like a stomach ache, a head cold, a minor burn; the normal discomforts of every day life. Compared to allergies, say, or even the hiccups, it's nothing much to complain about.

Sometimes over the years, no doubt hoping to elicit a little reaction, I've mentioned the problem to friends. "Isn't that what they used to call 'palpitations,'" one of the first people I told asked.

"Ah yeah," I would admit. "That's right." You see, it can be hard to get much respect for a malady so closely associated to romance novels. It's like succumbing to a case of the vapors.

But, unlike that clueless commentator I overheard discussing Bradley's palpitations as a political liability, the ex-senator and I know there are two million of us out there in America with this particular disability -- and we therefore qualify as a little-noticed but certifiable constituency!

Move over, Sen. John McCain and your war veterans. Our guy Bradley has the cohort of a whole interest group of people with troubled hearts. And the one thing we sure know how to do is to swoon over our man.

By David Weir

David Weir is Salon's Washington bureau chief.

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