I took a few minutes to look into my heart

Not in the usual spiritual or emotional sense, like when a concerned friend or the author of a self-help book says “look into your heart.” I mean literally into my heart while it was still beating via an echocardiogram.

Watching my heart beat on screen while feeling it beat in my chest felt like I was peering right into the core of my physical self, live on screen.

An echocardiogram is like a pregnancy ultrasound for men

I mean: we get to see something on screen (the movement of our heart’s valves and chambers) while we feel it moving in our chest.

On the one hand, there’s nothing very remarkable in watching a heart beat for a short while. If we allow for an average of 80 beats per minute, your heart beats about 4,800 times per hour – 115,200 times per day. If you live to be 80 years old, your heart will beat about 3.5 billion times in your lifetime.

On the other hand, the heart beating is both at the core of life and at the core of your physical being.

And I could see the chambers in my own core, expanding and contracting, valves opening and closing like delicate flowers. If it stopped, I would stop.

If you’re having an echocardiogram, it’s usually because there’s something wrong with how your heart is beating. And that might mean you won’t live to experience all 3.5 billion heart beats.

I had a near-death experience

On 23 April 2017 I had quite a near-death experience; a piano didn’t fall on my head but it came close enough that I could feel the wind of its passing.

I’d been experiencing heart palpitations on an off all my life, like most of us do. But while on an overseas trip with my son, the palpitations got stronger and gradually became a 24x7 thing. I told myself I couldn’t deal with my son, my travel insurer, and an American hospital’s emergency room single-handed. It didn’t feel like I was having a heart attack and I was going home soon. I’d just try to keep a lid on it until I got home.

Which I did — after two weeks we flew home to Sydney, I showered, changed into fresh clothes, I made brunch for my family, and mid-way into telling my wife that I was going to see our doctor about the heart palpitations I’d been feeling, my heart went nuts. Just sitting still at the table my heart was racing, then going really slow, then just kind of stuttering, then stopping for a beat or two, and then racing again. Each transition was abrupt and lasted only 5–10 seconds before launching into a new pattern.

I was dizzy, nauseous, having trouble talking, and sweating like I’d just done a heavy workout. My wife drove us to the emergency department of our local hospital and the amazing dedicated, hard-working and skilled staff of Mona Vale hospital.

Ever waited for hours to be assessed in a hospital emergency department? Here’s a tip: present as a middle-aged man with heart trouble. Straight to the front of the queue — bam!

What I was experiencing was acute cardiac arrythmia, which can cause a kind of heart attack called Sudden Cardiac Death or over a longer period of time (such as the flight home from San Francisco) blood can coagulate in the heart, form a clot and cause a stroke.

Not good. Very not good. Five days later I was discharged. Now and for the rest of my life, I need a twice daily dose of Aspirin, Diltiazem and Flecainide, which thin my blood and keep my heart from going into arrythmia again.

These three tiny pills, taken twice a day, are effectively the distance between me and the falling piano.

There’s also a surgical ablation option to consider, where a surgeon runs a wire up through a vein in my right leg all the way up to my heart to ablate (burn) some of the nerves cells in the sino-atrial node (the bundle of nerves which generate the signal to make the chambers of the heart contract).

The surgeon tells me there’s a 1 in 2,000 risk of dying in surgery and a 1 in 200–500 risk of the damage done during the surgery requires fitting a pacemaker. The risk of death sounds acceptable to me, but I’m not wild about having a pacemaker for the rest of my life, so I’m going to give that further thought.

In the meantime I’m adjusting to the side-effects of the medication, which for me seem to be puffy ankles (not a problem unless I’m wearing shorts) a little slowness in my thinking and some annoying changes to my sleep patterns.

The more important result of the whole experience is to be forced to consider:

  • What caused my heart to flip out when I thought I was living a healthy, balanced life?
  • Good friends have had to deal with heart problems and cancer diagnoses that are far more serious than mine. When I talked to them, and when I thought about what they were going through, why didn’t I really believe something like that could happen to me? Is it a good idea to keep living as if I’m invulnerable?
  • How much of what I’ve been doing has been because I feel obligated to keep doing it? If I had only five more years to live, what would I want to drop and what would I want to focus on?

Over the past nine months I’ve been working on answers to those questions. It definitely calls for changes. In the past few months there have been some precursors but 2018 is when the changes really drop. I’m looking forward to sharing them with you.

Postscript: a year after my heart scare, after changing some life practices to reduce some causes of stress, and changing my diet and exercise, I was able to stop taking my medication with the permission of my cardiologist. I’m writing this in August 2019 and now I only experience a second or two of irregular heart beat once every week or two. The cardiologist says one day the arrhythmia will probably return and I’ll need to take medication again, or have the surgical procedure. In the meantime it’s good to feel like I’ve been able to make a difference to this myself.

I’m very grateful the universe chose to remind me that I was not immortal and superhuman in a way that let me step back from the precipice and consider what I needed to change.

We get validation and derive identity from taking on more responsibility and obligation, and still more, and more still. There’s no upper limit until you’re Tony Robbins or Oprah. Society, family and friends tell us we’re amazing, but also that they can’t wait to see what we’ll achieve next.

Now, when I find myself feeling all immortal-ish and superhuman-y, I have a line in the sand that I know I better not cross. Or, if I have to cross it, I should know that I’m on the wrong side and should remain there only for a short amount of time.

Listen to your heart.

I’m Alan Jones, an EiR for startup accelerators, GP at M8 Ventures. Previously investor, founder, and early Yahoo PM. Opinions mine (but should also be yours).

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