Debilitating heart disease forced me to reexamine the foods I consumed, the exercise I tended to neglect, and the value I’d placed on my life. Managing a weak heart requires purposeful actions.
My day begins with … eight, nine, ten, eleven pills for heart disease, high blood pressure, vitamins, nutrition supplements, and the almighty water pill that will send me to the bathroom three or four times by mid-morning. A couple of medications require taking a second dose in the afternoon. I must remember to take the final cholesterol lowering pill before turning in at night. My heart and kidney functioning have to be checked regularly through blood work, echocardiograms, nuclear stress tests and a ninety-day ICD device check.
An ICD is an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a small device placed in my chest to help treat irregular heartbeats called arrhythmias (ah-RITH-me-ahs). An ICD uses electrical pulses or shocks to help control life-threatening arrhythmias, especially those that can cause sudden cardiac arrest (SCA), a condition in which the heart suddenly stops beating. SCA usually causes death if it’s not treated within minutes.
Unbeknownst to me, the rhythm and flow of my life were changing without my knowledge or consent. In 2011, I journeyed to Charleston, South Carolina with a group of friends for the Spoleto Festival, an epic annual musical festival where local, national and international artists perform in multiple venues including outdoor concerts, late night edgy music, and theatre.
The occasion was the fortieth anniversary of our collective college graduation. We crammed as much fun as we could into five days by sampling food vendors, ice cream, and gelatos. We took carriage rides and a tour of Charleston’s African American highlights ranging from the slave auction blocks to the workshop of renowned blacksmith and artisan Philip Simmons whose decorative iron gates are showcased throughout the city.
We shopped… one of our favorite pastimes, visiting Gallery Chuma where I purchased Johnathan Green’s Sweetgrass Harvest lithograph. My Spoleto Festival souvenir hangs on the wall of my home office. I’m gazing at it as I write about the changing rhythms and flow of my life.
On our last night, we ate dinner at Justine’s, a restaurant I’d last visited when my sisters Cheryl, Gwendolyn, and I were in Charleston years before. We ended our five-day sojourn with high church at First AME Church, brunch, a birthday celebration for one of the women, and scurrying to get back to our lives.
On the return trip, I became violently ill. Initially thinking I had overeaten… which I did… or that acid reflux was kicking in due to the amount of fried food and low-country dishes I’d consumed, I contacted my doctor immediately. He listened to my recitation of the symptoms and my activities of the previous week and concurred with my diagnosis …. and prescribed pills.
I didn’t have acid reflux, GERD, achalasia or any of the diagnoses the doctors floated after continuous testing and office visits. What had happened was my weakened, enlarged heart fell over on my esophagus. The doctors treated the symptoms (projectile vomiting, stomach pains, inability to eat) for five months as I lost forty pounds, my hair fell out, my body weakened because of coughing and an inability to sleep, and unable to think clearly enough to work as a management consultant.
The final health crisis happened on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. An emergency room physician and an on-call cardiologist saved my life. Over the next five months I wore a LifeVest, the first wearable defibrillator. This device continuously monitored my heart with dry, non-adhesive sensing electrodes to detect life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms. The device alerted me prior to delivering a treatment shock. I try not to think about those five months when the LifeVest would go off in the middle of the night.
On May 2, 2012, an electrophysiologist implanted the ICD. Over the next year, I regained strength and weight, and adjusted to my new normal which no longer included full time work.
On May 2, 2017, I will celebrate my five-year implant milestone. I thank God for his steadfast mercy toward me. He kept me here and gave me the meaningful outlets of caregiving and writing through which to manifest the new flow and rhythm of my life.
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.