Seven years ago I was walking the streets of Washington D.C. when I nearly fainted. First my fingers started to tingle, then I became lightheaded, and my peripheral vision disappeared. My heart rate jumped sporadically—beating many times in rapid succession, then pausing, then beating again. My skin got cool and clammy, my face flushed, and a full blown panic washed over me.
“Your heart’s going like this,” the paramedic explained on the ambulance ride to the emergency room. With his fist he demonstrated the irregular beat, which, by that point, I had very much already deduced. “The scary thing is, if your heart tries to lub and dub at the same time, you’ll die!”
With that calming information I tried to focus on what I could control; positive thinking, regular breathing, wiggling my fingers. “You sure you haven’t been smoking weed?” he asked for the third time. “It’s fine if you have, it’s legal. I ask because if you bought it here, somebody might have put something else in there, you know,” he said.
No drugs. I had had coffee and probably not enough water but nothing noteworthy. So they were stumped trying to point out a cause of my symptoms other than dehydration. What is going on? Why is this happening? My thoughts raced in confusion.
After what felt like hours of sirening our way through the maze of D.C. streets we arrived at an emergency room filled with hundreds of people. Every chair was occupied, and others were laying on the floor, lining the walls of the room waiting to be seen. This was not going to be quick. Given the circumstances, I had plenty of time to speak my last words and contemplate my final contemplations before that fateful, simultaneous du-lub.
As you might guess, that du-lub never came and I live to type the tale. They never did diagnose the issue, but they had a hunch it might have something to do with my esophagus and my vagus nerve, the body’s communication system governing various involuntary functions including heart rate. They gave me some slime to swallow that made my entire mouth, throat, and esophagus go numb, and an hour later my symptoms were gone and my heart rate normalized.
In retrospect, I’m fascinated by the way in which something seemingly insignificant, like the acidity from a cup of coffee or the sharpness of a tortilla chip that wasn’t chewed enough, could set off the vagus nerve and send the body into panic mode. One small thing goes wrong, one grain of sand gets into the microchip of the body, and an entire cascade of reactions is set off.
Though I’ve never again had the tunnel vision and sense of impending doom like in D.C., I have experienced small episodes of esophageal scratches and consequential lightheadedness and chest pain. For that, Pepto-Bismol works wonders. As for the culprits of the symptoms, it’s always dry bread or tortilla chips.
I look back on the experience with a comical fondness. Sure, I felt like I was a goner at the time, but clearly I wasn’t. And the upshot is I got to learn more about the body and how it works, how everything in there is connected. I think the experience made me more comfortable experiencing discomfort, too, because a few years after that I went in for an eye exam and absolutely fainted when the doctor gave me dilating drops. The doctor had left the room to let the drops do their thing, meanwhile I went as limp as a slug for about ten seconds. When he came back ten minutes later and saw my flushed face and beads of sweat on my forehead, he looked at me and said the best line I’ve ever received from a doctor, “You should have told me that you faint!”
He had a point. I guess I faint.
Jon Gorter (‘17) graduated from Calvin with degrees in English and environmental studies and holds an MS in natural resources from the University of Michigan. He enjoys fly fishing, mushroom foraging, and waterfall scrambling near his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.