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I Have A Heart Condition: Here’s What It’s Like

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“Atrial Fibrillation” written next to pills and a syringe.

I remember the first time it happened. I was either 20 or 21 years old and I felt a strange pressure in my chest. I thought it was just gas pain, but after forcing out a few burps, it remained. This dull pressure it my chest persisted for a few days until I felt a strange fluttering followed by hard, audible pounds. I thought I was having a heart attack.  For some reason, I didn’t initially call an ambulance. I rushed to a nearby gym because a part of me thought I was crazy. I wanted confirmation that my heart was going as fast as I felt it was before calling 911 and potentially embarrassing myself. I got on a treadmill and slowly began walking while holding those metallic bars that can pick up your heart rate. After a few seconds of waiting, my fear was confirmed. My heart was racing, and I didn’t know why or how to stop it.

My heart was racing, and I didn’t know why or how to stop it.

Still, some part of me didn’t want to call an ambulance. So, I ran into the bathroom and started splashing water on my face as if that would do something. It didn’t, but there was some prideful part of me that didn’t want to accept what was happening.

Another part of me didn’t want to die in a bathroom, that part eventually won out and I called 911.

I was certain I was having a heart attack. Every word that came out of my mouth was either a curse or a prayer. I’m agnostic, but something about the threat of immediate death makes the idea of God more palatable, if not more plausible.

I was certain I was having a heart attack.

After around 10 minutes of sheer panic, a fire truck arrived followed by an ambulance. This was back when I was living in Downtown Martinez, so the first question they asked after I told them I was having a heart attack was “have you ingested any methamphetamine in the last 12 hours?” I remember my exact reply because it made the paramedics laugh. “Fuck you. Just because I live in Martinez doesn’t mean I smoke meth, but I get what you mean”

Their laughter calmed me down a little. My heart was still racing, and I was pretty sure I was going to die, but at least I could make people laugh by shitting on Bay Area cities. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that ability would have a profound effect on my life.

The Holter monitor revealed my heart rate to be north of 180 beats per minute.

They loaded me into the ambulance and one of the paramedics commented on how tall I was. Someone even mentioned how I should play basketball. “If I survive this, I might start,” I replied.

My heart was still racing and I could tell the paramedics began to get legitimately concerned once the Holter monitor revealed my heart rate to be north of 180 beats per minute.

“Be honest,” one of the paramedics demanded. “Have you taken any stimulants such as cocaine or methamphetamine?”

“No,” I responded back more aggressively.

After arguing with the paramedic about whether or not I was a meth head, they told me they were going to give me a shot, and I thought they meant in the arm, but consistent with my luck that night, they meant my ass. And not the fleshy part, but right in the muscle. It didn’t feel good, nor did it slow my heart, so naturally, consistent with my luck that night, they did it three more times to no avail.

I got to an emergency room in Concord (which still confuses me since there was a hospital roughly 2 miles away from where they picked me up in Martinez) and they hook me up to an EKG. The nurse who hooked me up to the EKG told me I wasn’t having a heart attack. but I was suffering from an “arrhythmia” without any further clarification.

Then another person comes in and she has what looks like a checkout scanner at a grocery store, but it’s covered in some gel-like substance and she uses it to look at my heart.  I later found out this was an ultrasound machine. She tells me I have a healthy heart. This didn’t make me feel. She could tell I was still scared so she held my hand and told me everything was going to be okay. Consistent with my luck that night, I found this woman to be attractive, and I get a boner. She sees the boner and pretends not to notice it. My heart was still racing and I apologized. She pretended not to know why I was apologizing, and I didn’t want to say why I was apologizing because it would have made the situation even more awkward. So, we both silently agreed not to talk about it.

A few hours later, a doctor with gray hair growing out of his ears tells me I had a structurally normal heart and that I was suffering from a bout of atrial fibrillation. It was like he was speaking an entirely different language, so I asked him to explain what atrial fibrillation was. He told me the top chambers of my heart (the atrium) were racing, and the bottom chambers of my heart (the ventricles) were trying to catch up, which was why I had rapid heartbeats that felt shallow, followed by an massive pound. The shallow beats were the atrium and the big pound was the ventricles.

I was ultimately diagnosed with “lone paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.”

Now, roughly a decade later, I am still going through it. As I write this, I currently feel my heart jump around uncontrollably in my chest, but I’m not anxious. Is it a pleasant sensation? No. Am I fearful of it? A little, but not as much I as I used to be.

I feel dizzy and my face is going a bit numb, so are my hands and feet, but I’m not anxious and I know it’ll pass.

I was ultimately diagnosed with “lone paroxysmal atrial fibrillation.” Lone AFib means I don’t have any underlying heart condition that would explain the cause of the problem. Paroxysmal means my heart converts to a normal rhythm on its own without the need of medical intervention. There are other types that are more severe called persistent AFib and permanent AFib. Luckily, I don’t suffer from those.

So, if you suffer from AFib, especially if you feel “too young” to have it, just know, you’re not alone

Whenever I go through a period of Afib, I begin Googling it. Subconsciously I’m hoping to find an easy cure. I have yet to do that, but I have found this: a Reddit AMA with a standup comedian in New York City who has the same thing named Michael Albanese. It made me feel better.

So, if you suffer from AFib, especially if you feel “too young” to have it, just know, you’re not alone. And while the physical symptoms suck, the feeling that no one understands sucks more.

I promise, I understand. Even if I don’t want to…





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Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff is a San Francisco-based writer, editor and digital content creator known for Bay Area Memes, a local meme page that has amassed nearly 200k followers. His work has appeared in SFGATE, The Bold Italic and of course, His book of short stories, personal essays and poetry entitled Don't Drown on Dry Ground is available now!

1 Comment

  1. Yuckmouth
    May 31, 2022 at 5:16 pm — Reply

    Ah yes, the Fear Boner.

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