RALEIGH — The latest COVID-19 surge is hitting hospitals hard, with filled ICUs and emergency rooms. I saw some of it up close two weeks ago — as a heart patient.
During a workout, I was breathing way too hard and feeling woozy. I cut the workout short and seemed to settle, but as I left the gym it happened again on the way to my car, then walking into my home, treading up the stairs, and so on.
It turned out I had developed a Type II atrioventricular (AV) block. Somehow, the electrical impulse that starts at the top of my heart wasn’t making it down to the two lower chambers on every other beat. My heart rate had dropped to a dangerously low 30-to-40 beats per minute.
The next day, an EKG at my doctor’s office showed the block. The following day, a cardiologist confirmed it and sent me that afternoon to a cardiac unit at Duke Hospital.
Like other hospitals, Duke is seeing a surge in patients because of COVID-19. I checked in through the ER. It was packed with people, all masked, many looking weary, some using blankets, at least one heavily bandaged. It was next to impossible to create 6 feet of distance. For much of my time there I stood so as not to get too close to someone else.
Every couple minutes or so, a staffer emerged from the treatment area behind two large doors and shouted a name above the din.
Eventually, a seat opened up that didn’t have me squeezed next to another patient; nearby sat an older woman in a wheelchair. She told me she had spent 10 hours in the ER waiting room. She was being checked for a concussion and couldn’t eat. My wife bought a sandwich and drink for another woman who had been there since mid-morning.
My plunged heart rate got me out of the waiting room in an hour, but I spent the rest of the evening in an ER patient room awaiting placement in a cardiac unit. Nurses and aides hustled in and out, placing IV ports, taking X-rays and another EKG, drawing blood and taking vitals. They had little time to talk.
An orderly wheeled me up to the cardiac unit shortly after midnight. I learned the next morning I needed a cardiac MRI to determine whether I had other heart damage. But I couldn’t get in that day due to the surge in patients. Among them were COVID-19 patients who needed to be checked for heart inflammation, or myocarditis.
It looked like I might not get an MRI until late Friday afternoon but a cardiologist that morning succeeded in bumping the MRI up.
I asked to listen to oldies during the MRI to calm my nerves; that strategy kinda backfired when the fourth song in was Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
I was lucky. The damage was limited to the AV electrical node in the center of my heart. I made it to surgery late Friday afternoon. I now have a pacemaker roughly the size of two stacked quarters in my upper chest that keeps my heart rate where it should be. And it communicates with my smartphone. Amazing times we live in.
I was discharged the next day. I’m back walking with my son, 11, up to his bus stop to middle school.
I am forever thankful to the nurses, doctors, paramedics, aides, technicians and orderlies who took care of me during one of the scariest weeks of my life. The nurses in the cardiac unit in particular treated me like a family member.
I’d like to help them out, and you as well. If you haven’t been vaccinated, please do so. I got mine as soon as I was eligible, and I was repeatedly asked during my medical journey.
Dr. Manesh Patel, who leads Duke’s Cardiology Division, later told me it’s the best way to reduce COVID-related hospitalizations and “allow our systems to provide care for cardiovascular issues like yours.”
All the evidence shows the vaccines are the best way to avoid a dangerous case of COVID-19. That eases the strain on overburdened hospitals here and across much of the country so they can help those who couldn’t escape the disease — and folks like me who for other reasons might be running out of time.
Dan Kane is a staff writer for the News & Observer.