I Wore A Heart Monitor For 24 Hours
Spoiler: I’m okay for now.
Approximately three weeks ago, I went for my regular health-checkup routine. There was nothing spectacularly negative about my results – my total cholesterol level increased compared to last year, but it was due to an elevation in good ol’ HDL; my TSH level was 1.960 uIU/mL, smack-bam in the middle of the hospital’s normal range; my hematocrit percentage, usually presented with a taunting “L”, was surprisingly normal for the first time in years. It’s safe to say, living on my own in Bristol the past year has made me much healthier on the micro scale.
Ah, but the results came with a little more excitement than anticipated.
Last year, my EKG result stated: “Sinus bradycardia with sinus arrhythmia; borderline prolonged QT interval; otherwise no pathological findings”. It wasn’t necessarily denial, but an unimpressive knowledge about ECG/EKG interpretation that allowed me to shrug nonchalantly about the situation. But this year, my EKG result stated: “Sinus bradycardia with junctional escape beat and bigeminy premature ventricular complexes”, and after having crammed an outrageous amount of information about various cardiovascular system abnormalities (I’m panicking as the phrase “Quick lids flecking at amiable dilettantes” scrolls across my vision), well, what can I say…I still shrugged nonchalantly about the situation.
A follow-up was required a couple weeks later. I was *this* close to napping face-down all day listening to the ironically motivational movie soundtracks of Rupert Gregson-Williams, but thankfully dragged my lazy bum off the bed due to post-exam hopelessness (I hope today all you IB kids got the results you wanted – remember, there’s always a pathway for you!). So there I was, in the doctor’s office – not to be worried about at all, she said. It’s common for people under 40, and it’s very rare for it to be serious. Two things would happen: I’d get an echocardiogram done, and then wear a Holter monitor for 24 hours.
I remember watching one of the demos talk about echocardiography during an anatomy session, and this image was put up:
Um. I mean, what a truly wondrous photo. Find a person who’ll look at you the same way the patient and sonographer look at each other, am I right? (I swear I learn in anatomy sessions).
Anyways, that didn’t happen in my case (painfully grateful); I faced away from the sonographer and counted the number of vertical stripes per coloured block on the wallpaper (seven, if you wanted to know), and there was barely any talking. Despite being half-nude and having this transducer basically kneading my left boob, it all felt incredibly systematic. I almost fell asleep. But by hearing sudden spitfire beatboxing by my heart, occasionally being asked to hold my breath, and catching a glimpse of the Doppler echocardiography’s explosion of pretty colours, I just managed to stay awake.
After swiping away the ultrasound gel, I was then suited up with the Holter monitor: five electrodes plastered on, and a little pouch that held the ambulatory device itself. It’s basically just a piece of tech that records heart activity continuously for 24 hours (or 48, depending on the doctor’s suspicions of the final diagnosis) – since ECG/EKGs are performed only within a short snapshot of time and abnormal heart rhythms/cardiac symptoms come and go, the monitors are pretty great for doctors to evaluate irregularities, severity and patterns over an extended period.
I left the hospital feeling like an amateur espionage agent (watch out Agent Cody Banks!1!!). Here are a couple of images to show the Holter monitor itself and where the electrodes were placed – the former displays a countdown of the exact amount of time I had left of the 24 hours, and shut down once it reached zero; it was like a microcosm of every dystopian novel ever.
So comes the next day, after having slept as still as a log (subconsciously afraid I’ll roll onto the Holter monitor and suffer the pricey consequences), and they go analyse the data. Here are my results in brief.
Echocardiography Summary: function and anatomy normal albeit mild tricuspid regurgitation (TR). Seeing the real-time videos of my heart beating made me oddly vulnerable – I mean, if you think about it, nobody will ever have the privilege to set eyes on your beating heart (with the exception of those lucky enough to partake in open heart surgery). I’d feel more naked posting a snippet of the echocardiogram than a revealing swimsuit photo of myself.
Holter Monitor Summary: The doctor said if I had 10% or more ventricular ectopic beats in the total number of heartbeats in the 24 hours, I would be sent for treatment. If it was 5% or below, I’d be alright. Luckily, I only had 4.1% – whilst she did appease my mother by stating there was nothing to worry about (“All you need to hear is that her heart is completely normal”), she turned to me and asked me to be more aware of my body. That is, if my palpitations become more frequent or if the tight squeezes I feel in my chest increase in severity, I am to go back to see her.
“How many hours of sleep do you get?” she asked in the middle of history-taking.
“Well, 7 hours on average, now that it’s summer.” I think back to how my heart rate was only 48BPM just before the appointment; that armchair was really quite comfortable…
With a small smile, she casually said, “Ah, wonderful – when you get to clinical years of medical school, you won’t get nearly as much!”
Honestly, I really like this doctor.
Anyways, I got this incredibly exciting full report with an hour-by-hour analysis (I can sense what a funky, wild Friday night I’ll be having).
You can see how the number of PVCs vary during various times of the day; a few examples of the activities I was engaged in included:
8:00PM = delicious dinner at MK with the family + a McDonalds cone (the simple pleasures of life)
10:00AM = extremely fervent Kyle Landry piano-playing; I even got a cramp in my left hand (watch this space for a cover…)
3:00PM = serious car talks in traffic
It’s extraordinary to actually see the direct play between the physical environment and the electrical activity of my heart – the times with high PVC frequencies correlated with some form of intense emotion; “Strike fear into the hearts of your enemies” “With a sinking heart” “Eat your heart out” idioms suddenly became exceptionally reasonable to me. It should be blatantly obvious that everything you do cascades upon your inner mechanics, but I previously could only resonate so much so as if watching a devastating BBC News segment from the comfort of my own home. It just further highlighted the stark opposition of medicine being both routine practice and blindly grasping in the dark.
At the end of the day, the treatment literally stated “reassurance” – drink lots of water, sleep for a minimum of 6 hours per day, no caffeine, stress less. Such basic courses of action to take, and yet so subconsciously overlooked by the generation of today. Anyways, I think as a medical student, having the opportunity to personally experience particular examinations/procedures you see portrayed via cringe-worthy stock photo compilations in lectures provokes the same level of excitement you have as you are about to watch one of the most anticipated block-buster films of the year (I am at this very minute on the way to watch Spider-Man Homecoming). And that’s probably the very reason I documented it all…I guess I’m just young at heart.