“The thing about hearts is that they always want to keep beating”

So I’ve been a little quiet for the past couple of weeks. Here’s why…

It started on Wednesday, Jan 8th just after 9am. I was working on my laptop down in my basement when all of a sudden I was overwhelmed by a sense of spinning. It freaked the hell out of me and that just made the situation worse. My heart rate jumped and my right arm went tingly. Not good. I decided that being alone down in the basement was not a good situation and so I started moving to get upstairs and alert someone that something was not right. Walking while this was happening was not ideal so I crouched down and tried to gather my senses. After a few moments I felt confident enough to get upstairs. Once upstairs I let Ron (Rachel’s Dad) know that I was having some issues and he had me lay down on the floor and encouraged me to relax. The hope was that the episode would soon pass. Unfortunately, this was not successful and I continued to have these “spinning episodes” followed by a corresponding panic attack. The scariest thing was not knowing what the heck was going on! All I knew was that it did not feel good and it wasn’t going away. After a short deliberation we made the call and dialed 911. Within a few minutes the paramedics were with me and the first of many tests began. These paramedics were awesome and after taking my heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen saturation level, blood sugar, etc, they assured me that I was not going to die, but that we were going to take a trip to the Emergency Room. I was loaded on a gurney, zipped up in an orange body bad (thankfully it wasn’t black) and off to the hospital we went.

The body bag
Not my best look

The Emergency Room is a weird and wonderful place. It’s a place you never hope to have to visit, but when you are dealing with a medical emergency it the only place you want to be. The doctors and nurses were all fantastic that day and the care I received was top notch. (Turns out my nurse was a keen runner and had even been down to watch a track meet at Hayward Field!) Once in the ER the testing continued; multiple blood tests were conducted as well as an ECG (Electrocardiogram) all to see whether my heart was okay and that I was not experiencing complications as a result of an undiagnosed “Sudden Athlete Death Syndrome”. Unfortunately a few of these tests came back somewhat suspect, so I had to hang in there for another 5 hours so that they could monitor me further and conduct another round of tests. This is where hanging out in the emergency room sucks. Most people in the ER are there because they are REALLY not well and the walls in the place are non-existent. It’s a miserable place to spend the day.

A few hours later some more tests were run followed by some more waiting. The results came back and again they were not great. Apparently when you have a heart attack your heart releases a blood protein unique to the heart which will show up in a simple blood test. Any number greater than .05 suggests that there has been damage to the heart. My number was .11. Not the kind of news you want to get when you’re 27 years old and an elite athlete. I was with my Mum at the time and I’m pretty sure we both shed a couple of tears, not knowing exactly what this all meant, but we knew it wasn’t good news. The nurse informed me that a cardiologist would come down shortly and speak to me about the results. More waiting… At this point I had been in the hospital for over 6 pretty stressful hours and had not heard a whole lot of good news. (besides the fact I was still alive!)

Enter the cardiologist. After explaining the whole episode again to her, she thumbed through my charts and tests results and listened to my heart beat. Then with a straight face she informed me that my heart was completely fine… What did she say?!

…She explained that I likely had experienced an episode of vertigo brought on by an inner ear infection and that I was good to go home. Some follow up tests would be conducted but I was cleared to get back to training the next day. Oh ya and the .11 number. That was likely a result of the 27km i had logged the day before. Had I actually had a heart attack the number would have been 1 or 2 and upwards of 100! (This information would have been nice to know a few hours earlier!)

I had no idea how to react. I had spent much of the day reflecting on my life as an athlete and pictured what it would be like if I was told, on that very day, that it was all over…. that my heart had suffered damage and that I likely would never train and compete at a high level again.  Then only to be told that I was 100% okay. Of course I was relieved, but this was a lot to take in.

Over the course of the next few days I was on a bit of an emotional roller coaster to say the least. I had to believe that what the cardiologist had said was correct, but it’s hard to ignore that little voice inside of your head asking, what if she’s wrong? …it’s amazing what you can work yourself into thinking.

I had a few more minor “episodes” over the next week and I had to get a few more tests done. I was asked to wear a Holter monitor which measured my heart’s electrical impulses for 24 hours straight. Wearing this device kind of made me feel a bit like the bionic man. I even had to wear this thing for a run to see how well my heart functioned while running. Imagine seeing some guy (me) running down the trail with electrical cords poking out of his shirt… Luckily I didn’t have to get on a plane that day!

Chris Winter Holter Monitor

The final test I had to get done was an Echocardiogram which, would pretty definitively rule out whether I had a big bad ass enlarged heart simply due to training, or whether it’s as a result of having this Athlete Death Syndrome. The test had me lay on my side as the technician pressed a wand over top of my heart for about 45 minutes. Let me tell you, sitting there watching your heartbeat on monitor is kinda freaky. The picture on the screen looks very similar to what you’d see on a baby ultrasound, black and white and kinda grainy, but with this test there all kinds of pumping and movement. There are muscles flexing, valves opening and closing, blood being pushed through and then, every now and then, the technician turns on the sound to give you the full immersive experience. I kinda wanted to vomit.

I got through all that and now it just a matter of more waiting. I have a follow up with my cardiologist this Thursday and then I see my doc on Friday. This whole health scare thing has been like a full time job! That said, the vertigo episodes have passed and I’m pretty confident to say that I likely had a funky virus/flu type thing. I’m feeling much better and I’ve been able to keep up some consistent easy mileage through it all. I hope that tomorrow I get some good news and if so I’m pretty confident that within the next few days I’ll be back to 100%. (fingers crossed).

Beautiful day for a run
Beautiful day for a run

The takeaway from all this, is that if you’re a runner, cyclist, triathlete or whatever, listen to your body. If you think something seems off chances are it’s nothing, but its definitely better to be safe than sorry. There is not a lot known about Sudden Athlete Death Syndrome but that doesn’t mean you can’t look more into it.  Currently there’s a study being conducted at the University of British Columbia and they are actively looking for elite athletes under the age of 35 to participate. If you’re interested you should definitely look into it and it could give you some real nice piece of mind. (More info about the study can be found here)

Cheers

Chris