Book Excerpt from Doctor Heal Thyself: American Dreaming
This is the story of a regular gal, who just happened to be a doctor of physical therapy, for whom life got rather tricky at an unexpected time. You know, that moment when you have plenty of balls in the air, nearly so many that you can’t count them. Your schedule is so full from morning until night that you literally need to cancel on someone or something every time something goes unexpectedly wrong. A life chock full of responsibilities. Too busy to be interrupted by anything or anybody, or so I thought.
Up until then, life was humming along smoothly for the most part. Not a wrinkle too large to iron out with some time and effort. Whether my eight-year marriage, my freckle-faced, brilliant pre-school daughter or over-active, mischievous Dennis the Menice toddler boy, or my start-up private physical therapy clinic of a year and a half, things were moving in the right direction. Momentum going where momentum should be.
Then life happens. It kicks you in the gut when you least expect it. The weird thing was, at the time, I didn’t even know what hit me. There was no name. It just sneaked in. That heart thing. That, what do you call it, tachycardia? No, you can’t call it that, because your type of tachycardia is fine, it’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with you if you have sinus tachycardia. That’s a normal heart rate that happens to be fast. And if it happens to be fast while you are resting in bed, or pushing a cart at Target, as long as it is below 100, it’s normal. Don’t you know? Normal, the so-called experts said.
Why are you having trouble breathing? Why are you having trouble speaking? Walking? Can’t you sit down in a waiting room chair in your OB GYN’s office without having to grasp your husband’s pant leg to prevent you from crumpling to the floor? Not a great look for an athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach who looked younger than the typical thirty-six-year-old, now five months pregnant. I just didn’t want to hit the floor, cause a scene. But then they called my name, and I looked at my husband. He helped me out of the chair. I slowly walked the 30 feet across the room, grateful to hit the hallway where at last my fingers could trace the wall. My progress down the hall became slower and slower soon with both hands leaning my body up against the wall as my heart rate continued to accelerate out of control.
Where were we going? How much further? I wasn’t going to make it. My world was turning black. The nurse and my husband quickly held me up on each side as my body started to collapse. They drew me into the first room with an open table. Things went black. I could hear things, but I didn’t know what really was happening. I just knew it was very hard to breathe and my heart racing, which made it impossible to talk. I just really wanted some help, someone to make my out of control heart stop racing. I needed some answers. I had been pregnant two, no three times before. Twice to full term. I had been there and done this, but I had surely never experienced this before.
Now, thinking back, I remember many evenings going to bed at 8 pm pregnant with my firstborn, and feeling palpitations, hard beats, skipped beats. Something wasn’t right. But it was eight or nine o’clock, and pregnancy fatigue had already pronounced the end to my day. I would go to bed early, try to breathe deeply, and eventually I would fall asleep. I recall telling my male OB about the symptoms. “Oh, just normal pregnancy symptoms,” he would say as always, really to any symptom I would happen to relay.
“Is it okay that I’m running, I mean, running a lot? Like training for a half marathon?” I winced as I waited for his response.
“No problem,” was the inevitable replay. And he was right. I guess? I mean I ran that half marathon at six months gestation with no problems- no heart related problems anyway. I had been having significant muscle cramping or spasms in my abs halfway through my long runs in the two weeks training up to the race. So, I did what any athletic trainer would do. I got out a huge 6-inch ACE wrap and wrapped my belly as tightly as I could. Half way through the actual race in the middle of a Wisconsin sleet storm, the cramping and spasms returned, despite the first two miles of the race feeling oddly magical, like I wasn’t even preggers at all.
Well, it would be simpler if I just went back to where it all started. Where did it all start? Oh yes, I remember- really well in fact. It was an oddly fabulous day. It was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend of 2013. I felt great- energetic, ready to get rolling on a project for my physical therapy clinic, and I couldn’t wait to plant my garden- and bonus- I had 3 days to accomplish my aggressive to do list! I needed 2 rows of shelves for a storage area to store self-pay products in my clinic, and I was on my way to Menards to price them. I had a dollar amount in mind which left me less than enthused about the project.
But on this trip to Menards, I had a revelation. OMG! Menards is the coolest store in the whole wide world! Where had this been all my life?! I mean, they had snacks at half price of other stores (did I mention I was five months pregnant??), and the highly coveted Windex foam spray that can clean both glass and metal without causing harm to metal that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Plus, they had the shelves I had been envisioning at one third of the price I had budgeted. This was an amazing trip indeed! A few gardening tools, new gardening gloves, and new decorative mat for the front door? I had the shopping trip of a lifetime to Menards, and I couldn’t be happier to come home to share my great fortune and new discoveries with my husband (I knew he would laugh). I could see many more wonderful trips to Menards in the future. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law were coming for dinner, but dinner out at Olive Garden- what could be better? I didn’t even have to cook! Life was so good!
My mother-in-law and sister-in law arrived around 3pm, and they joined my husband Tim and my kids McKenzie and Aiden for dinner. We were seated quickly, and what could be a better restaurant to visit than Olive Garden when one is quite pregnant? As many bread sticks and as much raspberry lemonade as you want, that amazing salad, and maybe a taste of your spaghetti and meat sauce you can just box for lunch the next day- pregnant lady bliss!
Earlier that day, in my rush to get everything I wanted at Menards, I had run out of time to stop for a few quick items at Target, so I convinced my family to make a quick stop on the way home after dinner. Utilizing my infamous shopping speed walk, I raced my cart to the baby aisle for the handful of items I needed. As I was slowly rounding the corner to find the rolls of diaper disposal bags, I began to feel my heart beating through my chest. Fast, and raucous, it was becoming hard to ignore. This was really unusual. I always walked fast, whatever I did. No problem. Let’s just grab our last several items in a jiff, check out, and then who cares? I could go to bed if I needed to with my husband taking the reins for the fire and s’mores we had promised the kids in the backyard when we got home.
We grabbed our final baby aisle items and traveled quickly toward the check-out. Apparently walking faster while pushing the cart was not the remedy for an already racing heartbeat. While I made good time, I could not make it to the check-out before feeling so lightheaded I felt like I just might hit the deck. Even walking ever so slowly did not change my symptoms. So I sat on a metal end cap, dejected at the delay, just thirty feet away from the promised land of the check-out. Huffing and puffing, I tried to catch my breath quickly while attempting to avoid bringing attention to myself. My husband, clearly embarrassed at the scene of his preggo wife sitting in a non-seating area at Target mumbled under his breath. “What’s wrong? Are you ok? Can’t you just get up so we can go home?”
“Not unless you want me to pass out and my head hit the floor and force the Target employees to call an ambulance,” I said. That seemed to quiet my husband long enough to allow me to rest without speaking further. I re-assured my kids, “Mommy’s okay, I just need a minute to rest.” I felt really hot and sweaty, and my heart was beating out of my chest. I told them, “It will settle down in no time, and then we could go home and have a campfire.” Both kids were down with that. I had never lied before. I wouldn’t start then.
Ten minutes later, I felt a bit better. Holding onto the cart to check-out and help me walk slowly into the parking lot, I made it back to the car and slid into the passenger seat, happy to be on my way home. Unfortunately, on the 15-minute drive home, my heart was still not quite right. Inexplicably, my head and neck drooped forward over my seatbelt. No matter how hard I tried to hold my head up against the seat, it would just limply fall right back down again. Something was clearly wrong, only problem was, I had no idea what. When I got home, my husband helped me out of the car, into the house, and up the stairs to our bedroom. It was a relief to have made it home to my bed. Surely now my heart would settle down, and soon I could join my family outside around the campfire.
An hour passed, and I still wasn’t feeling right. I called the local nursing hotline for medical advice. The nurse told me to drink a full glass of water or two. Check. Still had no idea why resting wasn’t settling things down. Called the OB on call, did you drink the water? Drink some more. Still not better? Go to the ER. Reluctantly around 10pm we did. Of course, in the car on the way to the ER, I was starting to feeling better. Maybe I don’t need to go in, I thought. Then while walking into the ER, the symptoms returned, this time with chest pain accompanying the shortness of breath and accelerated heart rate.
After several hours, the ER doc was fairly stumped. She did find an elevated D dimer lab test (which they found EVERY TIME they ever had tested mine in the ER). I told her as much. Still, she said, it was elevated more than usual. Without a CT scan they could not rule out a pulmonary embolism (PE). As a pregnant woman with a 5-month baby inside, this was not a good situation. Pregnancy increases the risk of PE (but I didn’t have a cough!), but CT scans were not healthy for 5-and-a-half month old preborn. Ugh- the decision! I did what any dutiful medical professional would do in the situation- I pulled up pubmed.gov on my phone to try to get more answers. How much harm would it cause the baby? What are the odds I had a PE? Were there any other ways to clear a PE without running the CT? The ER doc didn’t make it seem like we had a choice. We weren’t leaving without getting the CT. Either decision would negatively impact my baby. One would kill us in the next 24 hours, and the other would expose the baby to unhealthy levels of radiation.
After an hour of research, I relented. I got the CT. It was negative. I was sent home with an inhaler (with the main side effect being tachycardia!). This was a joke. A pregnant lady with a fast heart rate causing shortness of breath and chest pain, of course, asthma it is! We got home late and went straight to bed. No telling what tomorrow would hold. It had to be better than today.
Jill Murphy is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and founder of MotionWorks Physical Therapy and an advocate for patient-centered care. A Christian wife and mother of three, she survived a seven year journey through the broken American healthcare system in search for an answer to a heart arrhythmia that appeared during pregnancy. A stroke, open heart surgery for constrictive pericarditis, and several other surgeries later, Jill is telling her story of unfailing resilience in her upcoming book, Doctor Heal Thyself.
Having grown up on a dairy farm 40 minutes from Lambeau Field, Jill is an avid Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin Badgers fan, and is up for any outdoor activity with her husband Tim and three children, including walking, biking, throwing the football around, hiking in scenic locales, gardening, and coaching a middle school basketball game or two.