4 things this doctor learned after his heart stopped beating


I sometimes think doctors forget what it’s like to be patients. But I’ve been there, and I know how frustrating and scary it can be. I remember one night, I was lying in a hospital bed, resting peacefully. I heard a noise and opened my eyes to a room full of chaos. Nurses everywhere. A crash cart. Someone holding paddles. I tried to speak, but couldn’t. And then I got it out: “Please don’t.”

Here’s my story:

Before the whole medical thing, I was in the Navy and training to serve as a submarine officer. Just as I completed my nuclear power training, I was handed a one-page medical history form to complete — just to make sure I’d be ok driving their submarines around. I started checking “no” to every answer, just like you do, without really paying much attention. And then one question grabbed my attention: “Have you ever lost consciousness or passed out?”

I had, in fact, passed out — twice that week. And several times the month before. (This was before I had any medical training whatsoever, and I had no idea how scared I should have been.) I took the form home with me and talked to my wife about it. Although I hadn’t thought anything of it before I saw that question, I knew what checking “yes” would mean. When I turned it in the next day, my suspicion was confirmed: “Well, sir, looks like you won’t be driving submarines.”

And so began a long and stressful period of doctors’ visits and waiting. (I’m not good at waiting.) I fired my first two cardiologists, both of whom told me I needed a pacemaker. I was 23 years old and would run 10+ miles for fun, and that just wasn’t going to happen. The third one tried three different medicines, two of which had intolerable side effects, and another one that just didn’t work. And despite numerous visits and a week on a portable monitor, nobody was ever able to capture one of these episodes. One day, cardiologist #3 decided to admit me to the hospital to test for a condition called Brugada syndrome (look it up if you want; it doesn’t matter to the story). The test involved giving a medicine and repeating EKGs to see if anything changed. It didn’t.

I spent the whole day lying in a hospital bed, just waiting. (I’m not good at waiting.) My wife was at home with our daughter, who had already gone to bed by the time they were ready to send me home. I wasn’t allowed to eat while I was there, and I was starving. Moe’s was on my way home, and it was closing in half an hour. I wasn’t happy, and I was ready to leave. (Really, I’m not good at waiting.) The nurse finally got discharge orders from the cardiologist — I’m not sure where he had been all night. It was too dark for golf. Finally, she came in to take out my IV, which her predecessor had been thoughtful enough to secure with eight layers of tape.

And then I heard a noise and opened my eyes to a room full of chaos. Nurses everywhere. A crash cart. Someone holding paddles. I tried to speak, but couldn’t. And then I got it out: “Please don’t.”

The room full of nurses stopped moving. The one with the paddles slowly put them down. Another said, “Are you OK? I’ve never seen that before.”

I was confused. “I just passed out. I’m fine. What’s going on?” The nurse formerly known as “the one with the paddles” ran out of the room and came back with this:


Apparently, when I passed out, my heart stopped beating for about 13 seconds. Weird, right? But it started back — no big deal. And then I thought: What if it didn’t? What if that had been it? 

I gave my wife a call to let her know I wouldn’t be coming home that night — evidently, they like to “observe” people after a stunt like that. She pressed me for details, and when I explained what had happened, I think her heart may have stopped briefly, too. The next week, I got a pacemaker.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Life is uncertain. If there’s something that you need to do before you die, do it. If your life has no meaning, do something meaningful. If you dream of a better life, take the next step to make it happen. Enjoy your family and be sure they know how much you love them. If you’re not comfortable with what will happen when you die, now is the time to figure it out.

2. Life is great. My family is amazing. I have big plans for the future. I can make other people’s lives better. I’m glad to be alive.

3. Sometimes, you have to wait. Medicine is imperfect. Doctors are imperfect. Life is imperfect. Waiting is hard. Get over it.

4. The path to your future can include unexpected detours. Ten years ago, I had no idea where my road would lead. Unexpected things happen. Roll with them. Find the path you’re supposed to be on, and keep on walking.

Chad Hayes is a pediatrician who blogs at his self-titled site, Chad Hayes, MD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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