Jul 21 2016

Notes on a 24-Hour Heart Monitor

For the past few months, I’ve been having kind of a tough time breathing. Sometimes it happens after climbing the stairs, sometimes it’s while I’m just standing around in the kitchen, sometimes it’s during a drive. Suddenly, I am acutely aware of how hard my heart is working: it pounds erratically inside my ribs, skipping beats, and every so often there are stabbing pains. Even when it appears that all is well — and sometimes when I’m not particularly exerting myself — I get dizzy and have a difficult time drawing a full breath. It feels like someone is sitting firmly on my chest, or like I’m only working with one lung instead of two.

I do not have asthma. I am not/never have been a smoker. But despite some genetic risk factors, I’m not very careful with myself sometimes. (Eek.) I consume Double Stuf Oreos literally every single day. I over-butter, over-cheese, and wayyyyy over-salt. Some might say I haven’t legitimately exercised since high school softball practice — unless you count lifting a twenty-five pound baby while sprinting after an energetic preschooler. (I mean, aren’t you supposed to count that? I totally have been.)

One night, several weeks ago, I ended up in the ER. They drew some blood, concluded I had “not yet” had a heart attack, and told me to follow up with a cardiologist. Because California has eleventy billion people in it, getting an appointment anywhere is not always easy — but a specialist finally set me up with Step One of testing: a 24-hour heart monitor.

24-hour heart monitor

It took a grand total of one minute to hook up: she stuck some things to my skin and handed me a black box with a clip on the back. “Do not shower for 24 hours,” she said, and sent me on my way.

She also gave me a sheet of paper for notes — I was meant to record when I felt anything unusual, like skipped heartbeats or pressure in my chest.

But since I’ve always kind of been a diarist, I took notes on other stuff, too.

9:30 AM: Get hooked up to 24-hour monitor. Two electrodes above right breast, one on right hip, two on left hip. Specialist explains there is a new version which is super tiny and sticks right near your heart and is completely wireless, but their office is not “fancy” enough to have progressive things like that quite yet. (…Yikes? Hope the doctor is fancy enough to make correct diagnoses.)

11 AM: Nurse baby, who is very curious about new contraption. Grab nearby robe to drape around my neck like scarf. Still have to pin his roving arm down to his side.

11:30 AM: Wires keep snagging on cabinets and drawers as I make lunch. Super annoying. Attempt to stuff wires in pocket alongside black box. Pocket not nearly large enough to accommodate everything.

1 PM: Go to bathroom for first time since appointment. Kind of tricky to hold black box AND pull down shorts AND keep wires away from toilet. WAIT A SECOND. Start thinking about how many other people have worn this device before me. Wonder if said people were quiiite as careful to not get pee on wires. Think about how many times black box has been in a public bathroom. Remember that this thing needs to come to bed with me tonight and I don’t even like to get in bed while wearing outside clothes because germs.

1:02 PM: Lysol black box.

1:03-1:15 PM: Worry that I have broken the black box.

1:16 PM: Check everything. Still working…I think.

2:25 PM: Change flailing baby’s diaper. Rogue leg catches wire and unsnaps chest electrode. Panic for a minute. Plug electrode back in. All seems normal now, but hoping I did not just skew the results.

5:00 PM: Wonder if this is how people used to feel when they wore beepers.

8:00 PM: P sees “stickers” while we are all getting changed for bed and kisses each one in turn. “They don’t hurt, honey,” I say. “That’s okay, Mom,” she assures me. “I take care of people.”

8:45 PM: Final nursing session of evening. Baby stares suspiciously at electrodes the whole time but does not interfere.

9:00 PM: Lament the fact that there will be no shower tonight. Am germophobe. Would conduct ENTIRE LIFE in shower if possible.

11:00 PM: Bedtime. Initially concerned about discomfort while sleeping, but place black box awkwardly by pillow and try to sleep on back-ish instead of side like usual. Not terribly inconvenient.

3:00 AM: Baby wakes to eat. Forget I am wearing monitor and accidentally yank out two wires while exiting bed. Results certainly skewed now.

9:30 AM: Gratefully peel electrodes off. Sweet freedom! Pockets are gloriously empty!

I’m supposed to meet with the cardiologist next week to discuss the results. Statistically, a thirty-something-year-old woman is not exactly high-risk for heart trouble, but I can’t shake the feeling that something must be wrong. (Of course, I’m also the kind of person who gets a headache and immediately thinks, Ohnoohnoohno I am obviously having a stroke, so my instincts are clearly not to be trusted.) It’s most likely anxiety- or stress-related, according to everyone on earth — and since I’m not the coolest cucumber, hopefully they’re right.

About Melissa

Melissa is a SAG-AFTRA actress and former high school teacher from Michigan who (reluctantly) moved across the country when she was six months pregnant. She is the winner of the SmokeLong Quarterly Grand Micro Contest and a past winner of the Breakwater Review Fiction Prize (selected by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted), the F(r)iction flash fiction competition, and The Writer's inaugural personal essay contest, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cincinnati Review, The Greensboro Review, New Ohio Review, HuffPost, Scary Mommy, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others. She has been shortlisted for both the Bridport Prize and the Bath Flash Fiction Award and was recently selected for The Best Small Fictions and the Wigleaf Top 50. Melissa is represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

28 comments on “Notes on a 24-Hour Heart Monitor

  1. I like your diary post – it made me laugh. I’m also a germaphobe and I love that you put Lysol on the box. I hope your doctor is able to help you. I totally understand freaking out about things, I do the same.

    • I wore one of those things for 24 hours. Due to the fact I have myotinic dystrophy and ended up with most of these same symptoms my cardioogust said I get to wear the Holter Monitor for a consecutive 7 days now do not want to do this! Looking into dry shampoo.

  2. just clicked on this. hope everything turns out okay with results, etc.

    i’m just curious but have you contemplated panic attacks? they feel very scary and heart poundy and can make you dizzy, etc, etc, etc. they dont have to be triggered by something in the present/currently happening. ive mostly mastered the ones i used to get in grad school, but with kids and a spouse who is out of town on occasion weird things happen to me like you describe, every so often. can chat more on it if you want. 🙂

  3. I have the same symptoms. It’s stress and anxiety-related. Next time it hits you try to be conscious of your breathing….feel each inhalation and exhalation. Try to think of nothing else.

  4. So hoping for a smooth and healthy test result seriously. However, you cracked me up again. Your writing is good for my soul. Keep telling it real~

  5. Ask about getting an echocardiogram done – sonogram-like exam of your heart to check valve functions and other cool stuff. Prayers sent.

  6. I happened upon your blog and just wanted to reach out regarding your symptoms. What you describe is very similar to how I felt a few months after having our son. It turned out to be hyperthyroidism, which is common postpartum, as pregnancy does a number on your thyroid. Sometimes it resolves on its own, but if not it’s very treatable.

    If they haven’t found a cause for your symptoms, it may be worth looking into.

    Hope you feel better. I loved your thoughts on the love your spouse challenge

  7. Oh my word! Just found your blog through a friend (she shares my love challenge annoyance). But I’ve done the heart monitor thing too. Mine ended up to be for a month (I could shower?) but everyday was a variation of this! So funny! Mine turned out to “annoying but not life threatening. Likely related to my thyroid issue”.

    Keep writing! You have a gift!
    PS I live in Michigan but dream of living in California.

  8. Keep writing, Melissa. You have a gift.

    Ask about Sleep Apnea. I had the same symptoms as you. When I did something about it, it changed my life. Who knows…maybe your husband is snoring so much that you are waking up constantly and not knowing it.

    I was literally waking up nearly 60 times an hour and didn’t know it! So I basically got about 2 hours of sleep a night. Things are much better now.

    I didn’t have the “stabbing pains” you have. Certainly get a CT scan and go to a top doctor. Hang in there.

    Adam – my son’s father

  9. Wow! We have so much in common – moving while pregnant, from the Midwest to the (South)west and almost the exact same heart symptoms. You may already know your results (I just found your blog), but my doctor had me do a stress test and they found a blockage. I was way too young for this, but nevertheless, I had it. Find a cardiologist that will get to the bottom of your symptoms so you will have peace of mind. Best wishes – and I hope it’s just stress!!!

    • A blockage! Yikes. What a relief that they found it! If I may ask, how was it treated? Thanks for stopping by with your story, and I hope you’re in perfect health now!

  10. I’m 15 and have to wear one of these- for the next 30 days. Its itchy and the lower peely thing keeps coming off so I duct taped it to myself and now its 5:50 am and I still haven’t figured out how to sleep without the wires killing me? lol

  11. I’m currently wearing an holter monitor and I am both pleasantly surprised but also shocked. Your story relates to mine with extreme precision. Had the same E.R. story, the same “you haven’t had a heart attack, YET” (I’m 22…), took ages to reach a specialist…. etc.

    I hope all is well now (as I’ve noticed this post is from 3 years ago). My symptoms are eerily similar- chest pains, trouble breathing and so on. If anything, I thank you for proving to me that I’m not alone in this strange cyborg-esque itchy journey.
    Thank you!

    -Laura (also from Michigan *cough*)

  12. Since being pregnant, I’ve been having random episodes of traumatic (or relatively normal) dreams where I feel my heart racing faster and faster as I feel like something is crushing me from front and behind until I cannot breathe. I had prior heart arrhythmia before this that would occasionally feel like my heart was clapping off beat and it would hurt, but only since being pregnant did I start having the suffocating feeling in my sleep. I am wearing the Holter monitor for 30 days to try to catch something as it takes place. The cardiologist thinks I have an arrhythmia or damage to my heart muscles. I also was recently diagnosed with Emery-Dreifuss muscular dystrophy, which causes the heart to weaken. The feeling of not being able to breathe is terrifying and usually only takes a minute or so to breathe normally again once I wake. Today it took 5 minutes once I woke, my arms were numb, and my vision was blurry. I keep being told by family that it’s just panic attacks or night terrors, but I genuinely stop breathing. It’s very scary and causing baby #2 to receive less oxygen than necessary. I’ve been feeling hopeless and was so glad to see your story and know someone else (in about the same weight/lifestyle situation as me) is going through something similar. Thanks for posting and I hope you are feeling better.

  13. Hi Melissa,

    Was wondering what your outcome was?

    I have been a medical mystery for the last 2 years I was also in the ER with chest pain and heart palpitations, they thought is was Pericarditis.

    After many blood tests and scans my doctor was at a loss and sent me to a rheumatologist 1yr on they arent sure what is wrong with me… totally frustrating!

    Now I’m connected to this Monitor with an arrhythmia so see what the results tell me, hopefully I’ll finally get some clarity!

    Jade 🙂

  14. OMG, this is also ME! “Lament the fact that there will be no shower tonight. Am germophobe. Would conduct ENTIRE LIFE in shower if possible.” This is the reason why I haven’t booked my appointment yet… I need to wear mine for 2 days returning on the third day 🙁

  15. Just curious!
    Did the wires coming unhooked mess with your results? My son just wore a 24 hour monitor & he woke up with one stick to his shirt 😐

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