PCT Part 3: Turning it Off and On Again

The past three days have been a blur of nurses, doctors, cardiologists and hospital technicians, all of whom have told me the same thing.

“You’re too young to be in here.”

I got dropped off at the Eisenhower Medical Centre ER in Rancho Mirage early on Tuesday morning, after experiencing an irregular heartbeat and shortness of breath at Tahquitz Peak, around mile 175 of my PCT thru-hike.

The ER nurse gave me an EKG, and I was diagnosed within the hour. I had atrial fibrillation, a condition that sends chaotic electrical signals to the upper chambers (atria) of the heart, causing them to beat out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). The ER doctor who diagnosed me told me it was quite a common condition in seniors, but rare in young, otherwise healthy adults.

I was admitted, and given a drug to lower my blood pressure in the hopes that my heart would convert to its normal rhythm on its own. An X-ray of my chest indicated that I might have a blood clot in my lung, or pulmonary embolism. I was put on a drip of blood thinners, and an array of electrodes were attached to my chest to monitor my heart rate. That afternoon I was given a CT angiogram, which mercifully disagreed with the X-ray. I didn’t have a blood clot.

On Wednesday morning, I woke to the same erratic beating of my heart that had been bothering me since Saturday. It hadn’t converted. One of my doctors told me the only other way to fix my heart’s rhythm was a procedure known as a cardioversion, which involves using a defibrillator to shock it out of its arythmic pattern.

Late that afternoon, after a whole day of not eating, I was given the procedure. I was almost terrified going in, knowing a tube would be fed down my throat and a shock delivered straight to my most vital organ. Patrick, the cheery echocardiogram tech, did a great job of calming me down. I remember gagging on the tube going in, and the next thing I knew I was out of sedation and my heart was beating normally. I had a faint red mark on my chest where the paddle had been applied.

That’s the good news. The bad news is the doctors don’t know how long it will stay in rhythm. Atrial fibrillation can be a one-off event, or it can be a recurring condition. It can also become permanent.

Later that evening, a couple of section hikers I met on day one, Andrew and Jamie (trail name “The Homeboys”) drove all the way from LA to visit me in the hospital. We walked down to the cafeteria, which had closed for the night, and raided the vending machines. It was a relief to see people I recognised in this strange hospital, thousands of miles from home.

This morning, my primary care doctor gave me the bad news: he “highly recommended” against me continuing on the PCT. Even if I decided to continue anyway, my travel insurance wouldn’t cover it. They may not even let me stay in the US, or return to Chicago to say goodbye to my cousins and collect everything I left behind there.

I was sad, and angry. The PCT has been my life’s major goal for the past four years. I shared my misery with my hospital roommate, Bob, and his wife Karen, a couple from Wisconsin who live part of the year near Palm Springs. They kindly offered me somewhere to stay until it was all sorted out.

I was angry that I did everything I could possibly do to prepare for this hike, and it wasn’t enough. Over the past three years I’ve lost 20 kilograms, got fit, conditioned my legs, and got physiotherapy for my misaligned kneecap. I’ve gone from a couch potato to running 5-10 kilometres consistently. My legs, my knees, my feet and all the muscles supporting them were all going strong at mile 175, when my heart fell out of rhythm. And there’s nothing I could have done about it.

When a hospital attendant wheeled me downstairs to get a follow-up echocardiogram, I was despondent. Patrick lifted my spirits a little, but the thought of going home so soon was too overwhelming.

I was halfway through writing a mopey blog post (working title: “That’s All Folks”) from my hospital bed when one of the doctors came to see me.

“Your ventricle output has return to normal function,” he said. I was floored. I asked what that meant for my hike. “I’m going to write in my report that you’re ok to continue your travels,” he said. I could hardly believe it.

So the upshot is: I’m getting back on the trail. I’ll spend a couple of days in Indio with Bob and Karen, recovering and testing my fitness. Then I’m going to take it slow and steady back up the Devil’s Slide, where I left off. I’ll need to do things a little differently, but for now, I can still hike. Wish me luck.

18 Comments on “PCT Part 3: Turning it Off and On Again

  1. So glad that you will rest. And then get back on the PCT. Prayers were answered.

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  2. Wow….at the end of the day you dont want to be in a box….maybe pick sections of the trail..and hop past some of the steepest areas..even if they are the most scenic…..look after yourself kiddo….none of your prep is wasted…you are better off for all you’ve done and maybe this is a condition you were meant to find out about…frustrating when you get those curved balls thrown at you in life..take care

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  3. Awesome! Blessings! I pray your heart minds its P s and Q’s… nursing joke 🤣 if you need a lift northern Kennedy Meadows (sonora pass) hit me up!

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  4. You poor thing Ben but thankfully your going to be able to continue your dream stay safe strong and happy best of luck with the rest of your journey looking forward to your next post

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  5. Wow! What a feeling. I’m glad to hear you’re back on track. If you need any assistance between Wrightwood and Mill Creek, let me know. My name is Kapiko aka Coconut Wireless – PCT 2018. Sage hiking…

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  6. Great to hear that old ventricle is back in the swing of things.
    Go Ben.

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  7. Oh wow!!! Well written blog post. Was so feeling your disappointment but then to see you will be able to continue the journey was so unexpected. Hoorah!!! Hoping all goes well and will be following along the journey from Perth!

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  8. Hi again Ben – your mum had already told me about your bad luck. How unfortunate and disappointing – but – so very happy to read the last ‘best’ news!!! WOW Ben – how lucky you are after all!! It’s a shame it happened, but you’re all good now and ready to go again. So very happy for you and your mum, as I know she was absolutely devastated to say the least! Your blogs are so interesting and so well written – ever thought of becoming a writer??
    All the very best Ben, will hear all from mum and meantime – enjoy – will keep my fingers crossed!! Cheers Lia

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  9. Ben, Love your enthusiasm but you should wait a year and try again. I am an active 72 year old who has lost several active friends to AF. Consider getting a year without a repeat AF and do PCT 2020. AF kills. Best Regards, George

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    • Hi George, thanks for the concern. I’ve discussed it with my doctors and they’ve cleared me to return given my CHADS-VASC risk score is zero. I’m 29 and don’t have any of the risk factors that form a part of that formula.

      I know there is always some risk, but the logistics of uprooting my life in Australia and coming to America to do the PCT were so enormous that I don’t know if I’d be able to do it again.

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  10. I want to speak into your life in particular to your heart. I say to your heart valves and that entire muscle be healed in the name of Jesus. No stress or strain on the trail will be too much for you to handle. You’re an inspiration keep on keeping on. As Oat Willie used to say, “onward thru the fog” or in this case “onward along the trail”

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  11. So happy to hear you’ve recovered your health and can keep going! Be sure to stay hydrated so your heart can’t complain about the extra work it has to do when you have low blood volume 🙂 Onward! (PS, you might want to remove the pict with your medical record number and other identifying info) Safety First!

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  12. Great to hear you’ll be able to continue. Heart arrhythmias run in my family I have SVT and my mother has Afib so I’m well aware of what you just went through physically as well as mentally. Good luck the rest of the way. I’ll continue to follow your journey. My goal is to be class of 2020.

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