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How a Fitbit Saved My Life

Alerts about Atrial Fibrillation

Fitness watch
Fitness watch — Kamil S. on Unsplash

The reality is that I was scared. OK, I’m 70, and stuff happens. I didn’t think I had a family history of any heart problems, but I did have a grandfather who died of stroke. He died before I was born, so I have no memories and must have thought his genes didn’t count.

I bought a Fitbit a few years ago to focus on the process of getting in better shape. I was newly retired, and performance goal oriented. Maybe a fitness watch figures into some New Year’s resolutions, a holiday gift.

Gold stars worked for me in second grade, and they work for me now. Metrics — steps walked, number of days with 30 minutes minimum of exercise, badges for new levels of goals achieved — I am like Pavlov’s dog.

I am not in competition with anybody but myself, and that’s the way I prefer it.

It might be why this blogging site works for me. Immediate feedback. I learn stuff. I have the chance to share something I’ve learned with a wider audience.

I had some health issues this summer, so I chalked up the notices I got of potential atrial fibrillation — irregular heartbeat — as anxiety. Those other issues were resolved, and I mentioned to my doctor I had these notices from my fitness watch. She was concerned and asked me to make an appointment.

Reduce the risk of stroke

She ordered a holter monitor, a heart monitor which I wore for a couple of weeks, then referred me to a cardiologist. The cardiologist reviewed the results and ordered a pacemaker implanted within two weeks.

That’s a lot of change to absorb within a short time.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar is the new spokesman for No Time To Wait, a campaign for awareness of A-fib. Some of us have no symptoms at all. Or, for me, some of the symptoms may include indicators like “fatigue” which is so relative and amorphous as not to mean much. According to the Mayo Clinic site, bradycardia-tachycardia (heartbeats that are too slow and fast) is a kind of sick sinus syndrome, the heart‘s regulator. That’s a particular type of A-fib.

Normal heart rates are between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Elite athletes may have resting heart rates in the 40s. My resting heart rate has been in the 40s and lower, but I am not an elite athlete, far from it.

The cardiologist and all the pre-surgical information the medical professionals gave me said there is a 95% success rate, and a pacemaker is a common procedure. But, when someone is inserting something into the heart, I think about those 5%. I complained, previously, about rattling the cages of the medical care system to get on waiting lists for appointments months out. Now I barely had time to prepare — holidays, then hospital.

The doctors seemed to be taking this event very seriously. I was taking it very seriously. So, well, off I went flying on an airplane to the place where I was going to celebrate Christmas, peace, and goodwill.

The cardiologist — she now qualifies as my cardiologist — also gave me a prescription medication to carry with me at all times in the event my heart beat too fast.

I was back home after the holiday and in the hospital for the two-hour procedure in “twilight sedation.” That’s when I am conscious of what’s going on, can answer the surgeon’s questions, but don’t feel pain. I did feel lots of tugging and pulling as they constructed a tissue pocket in my chest in which to put the pacemaker. It makes me think of the conductor on the railroad putting in his pocket watch. Only the round, hard shape is visible under my chest — a souvenir of bionic parts.

An electrical system on the fritz

I am not a doctor and my explanations are what a layperson learns from Dr. Google, the Mayo Clinic website, and experience. For example, “goes on the fritz” is a phrase rarely used in a medical diagnostic report, but essentially my heart’s sinus node — the electrical system — was on the fritz. I’ve had a car with an electrical system that went on the fritz, and the mechanic never did figure it out, after repeated visits.

My fitness watch alerted me to a condition I didn’t know I had and would have continued to ignore until I had a stroke or other drastic reaction. I now look at some strokes in my father’s family — grandfather, uncle — with new respect and appreciation that genetics is another wild card one is dealt.

Oh, and that genetic wild card may contribute to A-fib as we age.

The recovery period from pacemaker surgery is six weeks. I feel fine, but I am not supposed to move my left arm over my head or behind my back. I had no appreciation for how hard it is to get dressed, how impossible to wash your hair, or how many other formerly simple daily activities are impacted. I worry I may have moved the wrong muscle while my body is healing around this foreign object. That would mean more surgery, but for now, I can read and write all I want.

I am not happy the body parts are wearing out. I am pleased we have many tools these days to identify, replace, or boost them.

My Fitbit is a $79.00 investment for a slightly obsessive by-the-metrics person who likes instant feedback. It also provided an alert that may have saved my life — along with conscientious medical follow-up by my doctors.

I didn’t know that life-saving alerts were a side feature of fitness watches. Now I do.

I can choose various clock faces, different colored bands, and a range of styles, prices, and add-ons. Like my walking sticks, a fitness watch can help me look sporty, instead of just decrepit. I tell myself.

A fitness watch can also give me information that might save my life.

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  1. Debbie O
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    Wow Sharon! More later but just read your account in full as I was preparing to leave and paused to check email. Oh my…so very glad for ALL the things that aligned for you to still be here, writing, appreciating, living ❤️

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