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.