By Emily Paulin
What happens when your heart has a mind of its own?
[Dean]: Umm it’s really hard to explain actually. It’s just– Imagine you’ve just run
[Sammy]: As hard as you possibly can and your heart
[Melinda]: Is racing and it’s about to burst out through your throat
[Sammy]: It’s sort of like
[Dean]: Lactic acid, in your chest
[Sammy]: You know, your blood’s pumping and you feel like
[Melinda]: You are just standing still yet you feel like you’re running a marathon
[Dean]: Marathon. It’s like you’re looking for recovery but it’s not coming.
[Sammy]: I think your mind is thinking where is this going to lead? How long is this going to last? How am I going to
[Melinda]: Make it go back to a normal rhythm
[Dean]: Yeah, you just want to get rid of it
[Sammy]: And you feel like
[Dean]: It’s just wrong and you’re trying to get it right, I guess.
[Melinda]: Best way to describe it would probably be really vulnerable.
[PAULIN]: This is True Stories in Sound. I’m Emily Paulin.
[PAULIN]: I’m from a family of palpitators. Now, palpitators isn’t a real word, but it’s what we call my dad, Dean, my mum, Melinda, and my little sister, Sammy. They all suffer from a heart condition
[Dean]: Something, something tackycardia
[PAULIN]: as dad calls it. Mum’s a little better at the description.
[Melinda]: It’s called SVT
[PAULIN]: Supraventricular tachycardia
[Melinda]: Which has got to do with the fact that there’s a little short circuit in the electrics of your heart, which means rather than letting it beat at some normal rhythm, it just short circuits and beats at a higher rhythm.
[PAULIN]: And by a higher rhythm, we’re talking like over 200 beats per minute.
[SOUND: Heart beating at over 200 beats per minute]
That’s way above the average resting heart rate of an adult. It’s actually beyond most people’s maximum heart rate. And the unsettling thing about a palpitation is
[Dean]: It’s just random. When you get them, you get them. And I’ve tried to pinpoint, you know, why. Is it too much coffee? Was it energy drinks? Was it too much exercise? Was it lack of sleep? Was it some particular food? It’s impossible to pinpoint how these come on.
[PAULIN]: And when one does comes on, there’s also no guide to when it will stop.
[Sammy]:You might be lying there for 5 minutes; you might be lying there for 5 second. You just don’t know how bad it’s going to be.
[PAULIN]: By bad, we’re talking heart failure. Now, that’s not common, but it can happen.
So, palpitations. They sound pretty serious, right? Well, the thing is, when I was growing up, they, kind of, just weren’t.
Dad, who’s been getting them since he was 10 years old, had them a lot
[Dean]: Yeah I’ve had all sorts of scenarios. I’ve had them before races, where I’ve had to lay down on the starting line and stop the start of the race.
I was running at Stawell, and there was an event sponsored by Heart Health, believe it or not.
I have been in meetings, conferences.
I think there was one day where I would have had 10 or 15 of them in one day.
Yeah, look, I’ve had all sorts of things.
[PAULIN]: But no matter how many dad got, he always managed to get rid of them. He’d lie down, take deep breaths, or try holding his breath, or blowing on his thumb and, eventually, it would stop.
[Dean]:And you can feel it. You can feel it go fast and then bang, back to normal and you know, right that’s it I’ve got rid of it, I can go again.
[PAULIN]: Once it resolved, that was that.
[Dean]: I just got on with it, basically. You don’t worry if you’re going to get on or if you’re not going to get one. It just happens.
[PAULIN]: My little sister, Sammy, started getting palpitations at age 13.
[Sammy]: I just remember at school, little ones.
When I was playing soccer.
Even in the classroom one happened once.
We were on swimming camp, and I was just doing some backstroke. And I’m not a very good swimmer as it is and I was in the water and I was thinking, gosh I’m having a heart palpitation.
[PAULIN]: Her mentality was much the same as dad’s. She knew what they were, and how to get rid of them, so
[Sammy]: I didn’t have any concern when they are started happening.
[PAULIN]: In fact, she was far from concerned. She was just, kind of, annoyed at the whole situation.
[Sammy]: It was just an inconvenience because it was happening constantly and you’d have to stop what you were doing.
[PAULIN]: Even mum, who I should note wasn’t having palpitation yet – she started getting them at 46 – was pretty relaxed about it all. And she’s definitely the most careful and prudent member of the family.
[Melinda]:I don’t think I was ever concerned that it was a medical issue that would cause fatality or anything like that, it was more that it was just something that needed to be managed and was inconvenient.
[PAULIN]: While my family was thinking, “Oh, silly little heart palpitation, what an inconvenience,” those around us – who hadn’t witnessed palpitations before – were reacting very, very differently.
[Sammy]: People panic, and they’re like, “What can I do? Oh, are you all right?” And when it’s anything to do with your heart, people are like, “Oh my god, shit, her heart, it’s racing.” Freaking out.
[Dean]: Yeah, people that have never experienced it or seen it are just, almost ready to ring triple zero.
[PAULIN]: Which is the Australian version of 911
[Dean]: It’s like, “Oh, this is serious, you’re having a heart attack,” or whatever. And it’s like, nah nah, I’ll be alright in a minute, just give me a minute.
[Melinda]: And to them, it’s all quite traumatic, whereas you know it’s just normal process.
[PAULIN]: So here we were – me, mum, dad and my sisters – thinking this whole heart palpitation situation was fine. Because everything would always work out.
Until, one day, when it didn’t.
[Sammy]: Ah, so I had athletics training that day, I think it actually was a Saturday. And then, it was me just bending down to do up my shoelace, as I bent down I just felt it start.
[SOUND: Heart beating at over 200 beats per minute]
But I wasn’t concerned at the beginning because
[Melinda]: We were seeing a doctor, so we knew what they were and we had not had an experience where they hadn’t self-resolved
[Sammy]: So, it was like a, oh, I’m having a heart palpitation, just going to go and lay down. And I lay down in the middle of the track and I was just taking deep breaths, but I remembering thinking, oh gosh, this is – this isn’t going away. And then, the minutes kept growing; six minutes, seven minutes, eight minutes
[Melinda]: It had gone on for more than 10 to 20 minutes
[Sammy]: And it was going full speed, pumping so hard. I was like, I think something’s wrong. This isn’t right.
[Melinda]: I drove, or I chose to drive her to the hospital, which in hindsight was the wrong thing to do. I really should have got an ambulance
[Sammy]: And the whole time in the car, she’s was thinking, or saying to me, you know
[Melinda]: I just need to get there quicker and quicker and quicker and quicker and I couldn’t, cause you can’t do that
[Sammy]: Mum put the seat back down and kept asking me if I was ok and then I think my anxiety was growing at this stage because I think probably about 20, 25 minutes had past at this point and it was still going a thousand miles an hour
[Melinda]: And then when she got there and it wouldn’t stop I think that was probably a time I thought, this is – this is absolutely serious.
[Dean]: I remember going into the Royal Children’s Hospital
[Melinda]: And it’s a high alert code for emergency, so she was rushed immediately to a– the cardiac component of the emergency department
[Sam]: And I was really concerned at this point because I’d never had an episode where it had lasted for 35 minutes and it was going so, so, so fast
[Melinda]: And she had probably about 15 people around her at this stage because she was young. And they wired her all up
[Sammy]: To the heart rate monitors and that’s when you just heard beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep
[SOUND: Beeping heart rate monitor]
Because my heart was going 245 beats per minute. And that was a scary thing to hear. And then I also grew even more concerned because I had all these nurses around me, a doctor holding my hand
[Dean]: Clearly her oxygen around the body and her blood flow around the blood given that her heart’s been beating at over 200 for an hour and a half is not ideal
[Sammy]: And then he said, “Look, I’m going to have to give you this drug. It’s really – it’s not going to feel very nice”
[Melinda]: They also say to you that this drug gives you, um – this mental, um – state of feeling impending doom because your heart stops
[Dean]: And it was really confronting because here’s your 15-year-old daughter
[Melinda]: The most precious thing in the world
[Dean]: And they’re going to stop her heart. Really confronting.
[Sammy]: He grabbed my hand and he said, “Okay, I’m going to put the drug in now.” And
[Melinda]: The minute they give the drug, the heart just stops.
[SOUND: Heart rate monitor flatlining]
Just stops. Just flatlines. She doesn’t have a heartbeat.
[SOUND: Deep breathing]
[Sammy]: That was a very horrible moment for me. I felt all the muscles from my toes basically up to the top of my neck just slowly stop. And that was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had – it’s like you’re dying. And then, all of a sudden, from the flatlining, you just heard, beep, beep, beep [sound nornal HR] and my heart rate was back to the same rhythm.
[PAULIN]: That moment changed everything for my family. We completely lost control of something we thought we’d conquered. The baby of our family, who’d trusted so much in this combat plan, was the victim of it going awfully wrong. And mortality – flatlining and not coming back – felt all too real.
[Sammy]: I never wanted to be administered that drug ever again because it was such a horrible feeling. So, that’s when I said to mum I want to get the surgery because I never want to go back to hospital and have that drug again.
[PAULIN]: Sam went in for surgery with one of the best cardiologists in the country just a few weeks later, and she came out with a new scar on her heart. They performed a cardiac ablation, which basically blasts and destroys the tissue in your heart that allows for short-circuiting. But, in classic Palpitator’s fashion, it was no biggie.
[Sammy]: Heart surgery just sounds (laughs) so serious. Because really it is, so when I say heart surgery – but this is keyhole surgery, so to me it was like, it’s heart surgery but it’s really nothing. It’s just keyhole surgery. But it’s still heart surgery. I wasn’t nervous and I think it was more an exciting time for me to be like, yep, this is all going to be over and done with and I’m not going to have to worry about this after.
[PAULIN]: In stripping herself of her Palpitator status, Sam paved a new way for my family. Both dad and mum had the surgery, and while dad is in the 20 percent of people who it hasn’t worked for, he’s hoping to give it another shot.
[Dean]: It did trigger that yeah, you need to go and get this fixed. As much as it doesn’t affect you, it’s your heart and I’m sure everybody who had one, deep down, would think, yeah I’ve got to go and address this. Even if I didn’t think that for 20 years, I guess, right in the back of your mind, you do think, yeah, I’ve got to address this.
[PAULIN]: Because bravery, or fearlessness, or triumph, or whatever we thought persisting through life with palpitations was, doesn’t exist anymore. Getting rid of them – giving them up for good – is now seen as the right thing for a Palpitator to do.
[Sammy]: You go in, you get the surgery and it’s gone, and you can live normally.
[SOUND: Regular heart beat]
[PAULIN]: So, heart palpitations. They sound pretty serious, right? Well, that’s because they are.
Music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.