My watch might have saved my life
(No. 145) The alerts on my wrist led me to the emergency room
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My Apple Watch saved me from a potential stroke, or worse, last week.
I was editing a book at my desk when my watch warned that I was in atrial fibrillation, aka AFib. I ignored the warning, as it had happened once before, 9 months previous. At that time, given my overall good cardio health, my cardiologist felt the warning might have been false. While Apple Watches are considered to be highly sensitive to AFib, they occasionally show false positives. I kept typing. Fifteen minutes later, I got a second warning. Then a third. Then I texted a doctor I know, saying, “What should I do?” He directed me to a hospital emergency room 35 blocks uptown from where I live in Manhattan.
I threw my phone charger, a book and the recent New Yorker magazine in my bag and got in a taxi. My desire to remain calm and breathe deeply fought it out with my sense of rising panic, especially when the digital map guided the taxi driver on a seemingly illogical route.
“I’m headed to the ER,” I said, “so as quickly as you can get there would be nice.”
“To the ER?”
“Something with my heart,” I said.
We got there quickly. It was 5 pm on a Thursday night and the ER was remarkably calm, compared to other times I’ve visited emergency rooms in New York City, when they were filled with moaning, bleeding souls nodding out or pacing in a psychotic break. Soon I was hooked up to a hospital EKG which agreed with my watch: I was in AFib.
With AFib, the heart loses the plot and starts beating according to a different drummer. The upper chambers of the heart, known as the atria, beat fast and out of sync with the lower chambers, called ventricles. This arrhythmia can unleash blood clots that cause strokes, heart attacks or other problems. All day I’d felt I might be getting a cold, but I felt no symptoms, other than occasional lightheadedness, that suggested my heart was acting up. Other, common symptoms people feel include shortness of breath, chest pain, and skipped beats.
Without my watch, I would not have known I was in AFib, and I would not have sought treatment until something more serious happened. I am very grateful to Apple. Which is a weird sentence to write. Me, grateful to a corporation? Yes, I am. I’m also so grateful to the medical team that took care of me in a very busy Mount Sinai West emergency room. And to my doctor friend who sent me there. I was amazed by the dedication and hard work of almost everyone I encountered. Seriously, I feel blessed.
The hospital staff put me in a little room and gave me a blood thinner, to minimize any potential damage from blood clots. They also gave me a little jug to pee in, and a thin, short, narrow “blanket.” I remained on my gurney all night with little to drink and nothing to eat, because they were going to knock me out and administer quick, low-energy shocks to get my heart back into the proper rhythm in the morning. The ER got very busy as the night progressed, and I listened to the shouts and moans all night as I tried to sleep with a half dozen wires on my chest and a port in my elbow. Every time I dozed off, a nurse came in to check my vitals. Sleep is not a priority in the ER.
The next afternoon, hungry and feeling fearful about my heart, which was still in AFib, I was wheeled up to get my cardioversion. I loved the sensation of being knocked out with propofol, an “induction agent” used to sedate people for surgery, and I even tried, in vain, to prolong the drifting starlight sensation before I was completely knocked out. It’s the drug that Michael Jackson’s doctor gave him to fall asleep at night — the same drug that eventually killed him. I woke a half hour later and my heart was beating normally. Smile. Back down in my ER cubicle, they gave me a delicious turkey sandwich.
It’s been a 9 days now, and I exercised two days ago for the first time, other than walking. I did a fairly gentle pilates class, and it felt great. Yesterday I went for a slow 30 minute swim. Again, it felt good. Exercise is often encouraged for people who are susceptible to AFib.
AFib can be genetic, and my father had it, and one of my brothers has it, so that might apply to me. But it can also be triggered by stress, poor sleep, dehydration and being overweight (I’m often guilty on all four counts). Aging increases the risk of AFib, all by itself. So I’m paying attention to these inputs now. I meditated this morning. I’m noticing when I feel stressed, rather than ignoring it. I’m being conscious about food. And there’s a big jar of pink water with electrolytes on my desk right now. The trick will be maintaining good habits. For some reason, I, like so many other humans, tend to lost track of my good behavior as time passes.
But the biggest lesson for me is the value of the Apple Watch. I told my tale to a couple of friends this week, encouraging them to get a watch. Both were reluctant to do so, citing the cost ($350 to $500 for very good watches, and thousands of dollars for luxury versions). One of these guys would easily spend a few hundred dollars on a week’s supply of good wine. The other has plenty of cash in the bank. I didn’t understand their hesitancy until one said, “Maybe I don’t want to know how unhealthy I really am.”
I have no respect for this ostrich behavior, even if I understand the sentiment. I hope they rethink the value of their health vs. the cost of a watch. I will never be without mine again.