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My Mother’s Heart

I got a PhD by studying genetics, but somehow never saw this coming.

“This” being the night I woke up at two in the morning with my heart pounding, feeling like it had grown tired of life in my chest and was trying to escape. It seemed to hammer against the wall of my ribs as if I had just run a mile at the best pace of my life, even though I had been lying there asleep. Eventually, as it slowly calmed down, I drifted back to sleep, and woke to find my body behaving perfectly normally.

Except it came back the next night. And the night after that. Most people might view this as a sign that it was time to visit a doctor, but this was a few weeks before a major trip to Europe for work, one that would have me meeting Nobel Prize winners and visiting the Large Hadron Collider (I got to know it before it became famous for finding the Higgs boson). So, I took a course of action that has worked well for me in the past: I tried to ignore it and hoped it would go away.

They’d finally caught my heart in the act, and I had a clear diagnosis.

And so I had my late night appointment with my newly deranged heart somewhere over the Atlantic on the red-eye to Zurich. For a day or two, it arrived as I woke up, then gradually shifted back to near midnight as I overcame jet lag.  I struggled through a tough couple of weeks and went to my doctor as soon as I got back. It was a little tough to pin down what was going on, given that the attacks only seemed to hit late at night and my doctors only worked sane hours, but eventually it hit one afternoon while I was on the subway. I headed straight to my doctor’s office and had her hook me up to an EKG. They’d finally caught my heart in the act, and I had a clear diagnosis.

Atrial fibrillation, or a-fib to its close acquaintances. This, as it turns out, is a disorder my mother had.

Sometime after she turned fifty, she developed a heart arrhythmia.  It was never treated with the same level of attention that a heart attack is, but she was on drugs for it for the rest of her life. And every other year or so, she’d have trouble and be stuck in the hospital for a week while doctors tried to find the right combination of drugs to get her heart back in rhythm. She hated the hospital and didn’t like to talk about it—she didn’t even like visitors while she was stuck there—but she’d always come out and dive right back into life, so it tended to just slip out of everyone’s minds as other concerns piled up. I had never asked what the experience felt like, whether it was physically difficult.

But it must have been tough for her. My family has a habit of trying to take things in stride and get on with life, and so she didn’t complain unless she was actually stuck in the hospital at the moment. But something about it continued to bother her so much that, as she approached seventy, she was considering a procedure that would provide a permanent fix, but only by burning bits of scar tissue in the heart. Nobody, including my mother, was especially excited about intentionally scarring her heart, so she put it off for a bit, then got busy with other things.

She was still busy up to the day my brother found her in her den, dead of what appeared to be some form of heart failure. But the a-fib was a bit of an afterthought as I dealt with the shock of her loss and then with the business of handling her estate and all the family possessions that had to be handed out or sold off.

By the time that was all done, I’d largely forgotten about the heart condition that had caused all the grief. But genetics had apparently decided it was time for me to learn a bit more.

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