I walk down the road to nowhere for precisely 6 minutes. Not ‘approximately’ – give or take a bit – but 6 minutes to the second. This is not a stroll, a walk in the park with time to stand and stare; I’m on a mission. This is science.
Walking by oneself can be a strange thing to do, often engendering a sense of self-consciousness, that doesn’t seem to happen when travelling, say, by car. I recall that in a previous life I would sometimes walk to work. Nods to people passing the other way would often be unacknowledged – as if lone walkers are objects of suspicion. When I walked the dog the complete opposite would be true. Strangers would smile, sometimes stopping to chat if the dog was being particularly cute (he could turn on the charm if he thought a treat might be forthcoming – much like his owner). It’s as if the dog legitimised walking alone.
But I’m not alone, I’m being observed.
I had assumed that when the gym I mentioned in my previous post said that I’d need to do a 6-minute walk test to check my base level of fitness, I’d be doing this on a treadmill, wired up to various monitors. The sort of thing you see in television programmes about people being wired up to machines while they pound away going nowhere in particular – except perhaps backwards if their concentration should slip.
But no – I’m having a real walk. The main room in the gym is 25 metres from corner to corner, across the diagonal. My job is to cross the room, backwards and forwards until called upon to stop. At a given signal I set off at a brisk pace. A nurse calls out as each minute passes. On this signal another nurse hurries alongside me and without breaking my stride, slips an oxiometer onto my finger, thereby catching my oxygen saturation and heart rate as I walk. All very low-tech but effective just the same.
I begin by counting laps to relieve the monotony, but the time goes surprisingly quickly and with the added challenge of sticking my finger out every so often without causing injury to myself or the nurse walking alongside, I soon lose count. And then I’m done. I actually enjoyed it – the sensation of walking in this way. I mention this to the nurses and try to relate it to walking through the Milton Keynes shopping centre – which might well take 6 minutes or so. But far less enjoyable. “That’s because this floor is sprung – the shopping centre is solid marble which hurts your feet”. Solid marble flooring? The pension funds which financed the building of the shopping centre must have been pretty flush at the time.
After checking my blood pressure and heart rate I’m free to join the class, which has now assembled in the equipment room.
I’ve never been to a modern gym – the last one I set foot in had men in tights sporting waxed handlebar moustaches and brycleemed hair, lifting dumbbells and tossing Indian Clubs. (I jest but you get my drift).
I am baffled by some of the equipment. I choose an exercise bike (familiar), rowing machine (soon get the hang of it) a cross (or elliptical) trainer (a what?? – my co-ordination is rubbish and I begin the session by rotating the pedals backwards) and my bête noir – the treadmill. Two large buttons immediately catch my eye – a tortoise (-) and a rabbit (+). Hmm. I give old rabbit (bear with me) a tentative press and then have to grab hold of the handles to stop myself flying backwards. Apparently you’re not supposed to stand on the treadmill when you touch the rabbit. After a few minutes of switching between tortoise and rabbit I get the hang of it. But I don’t like it. (Annie subsequently points out to me that it should be a hare not a rabbit – it looks like a rabbit to me).
After a warming down exercise we all sit around for a session of bicep curls and tricep extensions using a large rubber band. I’m given a green one, which indicates average fitness. I notice one red one (macho – or ‘I could be in a real gym’) and a beige one (oh dear – serious heart/lung problems). We all then have a nice cup of tea while our heart rate and oxygen levels are measured. My O2 is 97%, which is good, and my heart rate is 82bpm, which is OK having just spent an hour or so exercising. I think I’m going to enjoy coming here.
And then Life does that thing that I find really annoying; you’re bumbling along, head down, not causing any mischief or discomfort to anyone else – just minding your own business – and as you turn a corner, Life sticks a foot out and you fall flat on your face.
It’s about 8pm; we’re enjoying a sociable evening watching a programme about Australian art – Dan (Annie’s youngest, home on an all too short visit from Oz while he waits for a visa to go back for a second year), Annie and myself. There’s a knock on a metaphorical door; the Gods of Arrhythmia have come to call – and they’re not happy.
It starts with a few ectopics and I leave it a while; my heart rate fluctuates on each beat – 60, 90, 115, 125, 80, 60, 100 …. and so on. I take the pill-in-the-pocket and settle down to wait. After about an hour the ectopics cease, but my heart rate stabilizes at 125bpm. Odd. It should be lower.
I go to bed but no change. I hate this feeling; like an old car brought to a sudden standstill. I’m in neutral – I’m going nowhere, but the accelerator is stuck to the floor and the engine’s racing – screaming – and bits are starting to fall off (the imagined car, not me).
We pass an anxious night; although the pill-in-the-pocket has brought the heart back to a regular rhythm, it hasn’t lowered the rate. It’s been over two years since I’ve been tachycardic for more than a few hours. Last Christmas, I had an episode where the heart stayed at about 130bpm for about an hour or so before the p-i-p kicked in and things went back to normal. Since then these high rates have been no more than blips – a couple of minutes at most before reverting to ectopic episodes that oscillate between 60 and 90 bpm. I had begun to think that perhaps I was free of the tachycardia; I’d even gone as far as thinking that I might be able to reduce the p-i-p dosage if I was simply dealing with abnormal rhythms around the normal range. Not yet, clearly.
Annie’s worried – she wants me to go to A&E. I’m reluctant; I have no chest pains, breathlessness or symptoms of any sort other than a racing heart rate. I reassure her that the drugs will do the trick, although my confidence is somewhat shaken – this is the first time the p-i-p has failed to reduce my heart rate.
At 7.00am when I take my morning dose of bisoprolol, I’m still struck on 120bpm. By around 8.15 the bisoprolol has kicked in and my heart rate finally drops to 70 bpm. I feel like a zombie and it takes me the rest of the day to recover. And now as I sit and write this, some 24 hours later, my resting heart rate a high(ish) 87bpm.
I don’t get it. If it was to do with the gym session, why did it take around 6 hours for the arrhythmia to occur? And why, when the heart rate finally went back into a regular rhythm, did it do so at such a high rate? A few weeks ago, I was wondering whether singing might prompt an arrhythmia. Last week I had an impromptu rehearsal with my friend Neil. I’d gone to help him with a recording project, but we were unable to finish it so we had a singsong instead. No problems afterwards.
Following lung surgery I was diagnosed with Atrial Flutter and subsequently treated via Catheter Ablation in June 2011. Although the Flutter was deemed ‘cured’, arrhythmias continued and I was subsequently diagnosed with Paroxysmal Atrial Fibrillation. Paroxysmal simply means ‘random – of no known cause’. So perhaps I’m looking for a rational explanation when there isn’t one. That’s something I find hard though – I am by nature, inquisitive. Maybe this particular road really is going nowhere.
I have to go to the gym again. There is so much evidence supporting the role of exercise in heart and lung rehabilitation. I’ll change one variable though; I was hungry when I got home from the gym so I ended up eating more than usual at our evening meal. So, next week – post-exercise snack and portion control. And we’ll see what happens.