Matters of the Heart

Jenn Mace ’15 is on the girls varsity basketball and cross country teams at Nobles. In her personal essay for English class, she reflects on training and running with her dad who has atrial fibrillation.  

Jen MaceI sprint around the last curve of the track, attempting to complete the soccer training plan workout. I’m fourteen years old, training for varsity soccer tryouts at Nobles in the fall. As I approach the final straightaway, my legs grow heavy and start to burn. I take short quick breaths, struggling to inhale enough oxygen to keep me moving. The soles of my feet start to burn from the friction between my grey and orange Brooks running sneakers and the red tar of the track.  I look around the track, desperately searching for a distraction from the pain of this last 400. The pristine track glimmers in the sunlight, like the ocean on a calm sunny day. I see my dad, still one step ahead of me on my right hand side. “All the single ladies, all this single ladies, now put your hands up” blasts from his headphones. His music instantly makes me smile and realize, if he can run this 400, at 48 years old, with thousands of miles already logged in his legs, I can run it too.

“Seventy-three,” my dad exhales sharply as we cross the finish line. “Pretty good.”

As I catch my breath, I smile at my dad, a big toothy smile that reminds him of “baby Jenn.” I’m proud to have run a 400 that fast, even prouder to have run that fast with my dad at my side.  I know I would not have finished the 400 if he hadn’t run with me to pull me along.

Two summers later, my dad and I are in the car driving to the track again. Everything seems the same; I’m wearing the same model of Brooks sneakers, my dad is wearing the same black shorts, baby blue tank top, black sunglasses, and black sweatband, and the track catches the sun’s glow as the dark clouds float away. After a warm up and a quick stretch, we began our first 400. Running the final straightaway, the familiar heavy, burning feeling returns to my legs. Refreshing droplets of sweat drip down my flushed cheek, a creek trickling over hot rocks. As I look at my surroundings, I look for something to motivate me to keep moving. In the past, this something has always manifested in the form of my dad. I expect to see my dad—his legs striding, his arms pumping, his black sunglasses concealing his emotions—in lane two. Lane two is empty.

His disappearance startles me, but I keep running, even pick up the pace, knowing if he could he would sprint next to me, pulling me forward. As I finish the 400, I realize nothing is the same. For the first time, my dad couldn’t keep up with me on the track. The unrelenting heat, the fast pace, or the effort the run required did not force my dad to quit as most people would. He stopped because of a defect in his heart.

The doctor first diagnosed my dad with atrial fibrillation in October 2009. Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition when only half of the heart functions—only two of the four chambers work properly. The condition causes an irregular heart beat and a significantly diminished circulation because the heart must work two times as hard to pump only half the usual amount of blood. My dad had episodes of atrial fibrillation (afib), lasting days, weeks, or months. In afib, my dad tended to have a short temper and felt more tired than usual. He described the condition as constantly walking around wearing a 100-pound vest. When the episode ended, a process that could take seconds or months, he would again be perky, healthy and feeling as though he could lift 400 pounds or run a seven-minute mile.

Afib has prevented my dad from participating in many activities he loves, especially running on the track with his daughters. Several years ago, my dad challenged my sister and me to a 400-meter race following our high school graduations. Afib stole his opportunity to race against my sister last summer after she graduated.  Last summer, my dad had been in afib continuously for over six months. I never realized how much the condition affected him until the day on the track he vanished from my side. I can’t imagine the pain he suffered that made him stop.

When I returned home that afternoon, I cried. I felt like I had accidentally inhaled a gulp of ocean salt water. Running with me had always been important to him. He took such pride in always keeping up with me—something most dads can’t do. Our summer track outings connected us like a son watching a football game with his dad.

Jenn & DadThroughout the summer, my dad continued to run on the track with me. We warmed up and stretched together, and then I would run my 400’s as he ran at a pace his heart could sustain. We found a routine that worked for both of us.  He coached me and gave me running tips: to run with my elbows tucked in tight to my ribs and with my hands in a loose fist so the air could pass through the hole between my palm and my fingertips.

As the summer continued, I could see the condition eating away at him. He began to give up hope that he would come out of afib on his own. He couldn’t sleep well, couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without losing his breath, couldn’t stand temperatures too warm or too cold. After eight months, with our family’s support and the doctor’s strong recommendation, he made the decision to have surgery. If he didn’t undergo surgery, he would remain in afib permanently. In surgery, two tubes, one with a camera and one with a laser, would snake up each femoral artery to my dad’s heart. Using the camera, the doctor would then zap the areas he thought caused the errant electrical signals that trigger afib.

The morning of the surgery, Sept. 3, 2013, my parents left the house before me. The house was empty as I departed for the first day of junior year. Even with no one in it, I could feel the tension left by my parents that morning. A still, uneasy silence filled the house making me more nervous than I should have felt for the first day of school.

I arrived at school, saw the familiar faces of my friends and teachers, and participated in the “welcome back” and “class bonding” activities of retreat. It all seemed so trivial. My dad was having heart surgery, and I was at school acting out charades of Miley Cyrus and The Great Gatsby. My mom’s friend picked me up from school halfway through the retreat and drove me to the hospital to wait for my dad’s five-hour surgery to finish.

After an hour of sitting in the waiting room with my mom, we saw the wooden double doors open, and my dad’s doctor entered the room. He announced that my dad’s surgery had finished and that we could visit him. My dad lay in a hospital bed on his back in a blue and grey johnny, connected to several wires. He acted energetic and upbeat, but looked at me with a superficial smile, hiding his true emotions. Similar to my sympathy for my dad on the track, my heart felt empathy with him now. Just like his heart in afib, my heart uncontrollably decreased its blood flow to my brain. As my father described the way the doctors stopped and restarted his heart, his voice faded.

I woke with a sharp pain in the back of my head.

“You fainted,” a voice told me. I looked up to see a plethora of nurses and doctors. “You fell backwards, crashed through the curtain, and slammed your head on the tile floor.” I felt something cool flow into my left arm. “I’m inserting an IV,” the same voice told me.

Seven hours later and a series of questions, blood tests, concussion tests and a CT scan, the doctors discovered dehydration, low blood sugar, an extremely low pulse and the wave of panic and anxiety of seeing my dad so vulnerable in the hospital caused my fainting. It reminded me of my emotions the day at the track when I found his lane empty.  My dad, the most stable person in my life, wasn’t secure on either day. I disliked the uncertainty of what would happen to him in the coming months. Even though the surgery went well, there remained a chance of complications with his surgery or a return to afib within the next few days or weeks.

Four months after my dad’s surgery, I saunter down to our basement to do a quick workout. My dad had yet to have another afib episode but has felt several irregular heartbeats. I desperately wanted the surgery to be a success, so he will be not only healthy, but also my strong, unwavering dad. As I approach the exercise room, I hear the buzz of the treadmill and the continuous pounding of feet. I crack the door open and see my dad, in black shorts, a baby blue tank top, a black sweatband, running on the treadmill. I pause for a moment, happy to see him running hard, and then close the door so I didn’t disturb him. As I turned around, I heard the faint hum of “all the single ladies” start to play from his headphones. I walk upstairs with confidence, knowing that my dad will return to his calm, optimistic self permanently, be healthy at my high school graduation, and finally have the chance to race one of his daughters on the track.

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