Tachycardia Saps Her Breath and Energy
Tessie Dewitt, 30, is an insurance agent living in Gresham, Ore., near Portland. At 26 she had her first attack of supraventricular tachycardia, an abnormal, fast rhythm that starts in the upper chambers of the heart. She also has type 1 diabetes, which she manages by giving herself shots of insulin. She has two children, a 15-year-old stepdaughter and a 10-year-old daughter.
About four years ago I woke up in the middle of the night to a pounding in my chest. I felt like I had been kicked: I couldn't breathe or talk. My husband panicked; he didn't know what to do. I assumed that it had something to do with my diabetes, and I thought something was going wrong with the medication or my diet, or that maybe it had something to do with an extra-strength sleeping pill I had taken. But none of that was it.
I was certain I'd had a heart attack. It was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me. The EMTs tell you to try to breathe through it, but it is very difficult to stay calm—especially when you are 26 and you think you're pretty healthy! The doctor said this is the closest thing to having a heart attack without actually having one.
I went through a bunch of electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms, and I had to carry a portable EKG with me everywhere. All these patches were hooked to my chest with little wires, and the machine recorded my heartbeat all day. I was glad to let that thing go back to the clinic! It probably took at least three to five weeks before I got a complete diagnosis: supraventricular tachycardia. The electrical part of my heart malfunctions and causes something like a short circuit that makes my heart beat too fast. My normal everyday beat is around 75 to 120 per minute. I'm on metoprolol and ramipril, but without heart medication, my heart beats up to 180 beats per minute. Sometimes it will reach that rate even while I'm taking the meds.
I can feel when an episode is coming on. It feels like the breath is being sucked out of my chest, as if I'd had the wind knocked out of me, and I just have no way to get it back. Sometimes it lasts only a few minutes, at other times it lasts hours. One attack happened at work: I was sitting at my desk and I lost my breath and wasnt able to speak. My boss was right behind me, telling me to breathe slowly and to try to calm down to make my heart calm down. "You are going to be fine," he said. "The ambulance is on the way." I thought I was going to die. I stayed in the hospital for three days.
Im 53" and 100 pounds. I don't look like I have a heart problem. Its rare for someone like me to have this type of condition. When I go to my doctors clinic, the heart patients are much older and usually much heavier. Im one of the youngest people in the room. I get strange looks and comments as if I do not belong there. Sometimes the assistants at hospitals are shocked when they see me because I'm not what they expected.
My doctors don't have a reason for why it happens or when it will happen. No one in my family has any type of heart disease or heart problem. I don't have sleep apnea. My type 1 diabetes isn't a factor in this either. It might just be a malfunction in my heart that I always had and it did not really affect me until now. In high school I had always had a fast heart rate—around 120 to 130 beats per minute—but no one seemed concerned at the time.
In the last couple of months my heart rate has started to increase. My doctor ran some tests and discovered that my tachycardia has caused a valve in my heart to become enlarged, which puts me at high risk for stroke and heart attack.
My daughters worry a lot. My youngest asks me every day, "Have you taken your medication?" She always is looking at my daily pill box to make sure I have taken my meds, and she sees the days on it and she makes sure that the day is empty. Or if I put my hand to my heart, she asks me about it.
Before this I didn't have any limits. I had all the energy in the world. Now when I try to walk at the ocean or take hikes with my kids, I get out of breath very fast. Now we're constantly worrying about my health.
As told to Kathryn Higgins