The Day I Met My Heart
ECHOCARDIOGRAM: Not Mine, but Someone Else's. My "shoot" has been tucked Away in a Format as archaic as Aramaic.
It’s been a week now and the plastic around my wrist is crunched like old newspaper. Name and numbers are smudged, but the band stays. Call me sentimental, but that was the day I met my heart.
As I emailed a friend:
I went for my cardiac stress test today. For a physician over 65, the blinking panels, treadmill and echocardiogram screen could be called a rite of passage to Over-The-Hill. Or at least a Reckoning with Reality.
The reckoning started with my “tell-all” appointment with my family Doc. That’s right, I confessed, as humbly as any Doc can to another, that I’d been walking around with shortness of breath and other “snags” in body function, ignoring these signs of decline. “I give up,” I told him. “What do you think?” To my relief and also, dismay, he agreed. I had something to “look into.”
At the cardiopulmonary lab, two “teenage” technicians and a hospitalist doctor circled me. A buoyant brunette in scrubs reached under my gown to attach the conducting leads across my breasts. Tethered to both treadmill and a video screen, I became both the object of observation and the observer. I wondered if the Heisenberg Uncertainty event applied, on a human scale, instead of that of electrons, if such a thing is possible (1). In plain words, do we change ourselves and others through our observing them?
A shiny grey shadow filled the screen and Doctor-Me melted. This was my shiny grey shadow, and it was squeezing and releasing with unwavering conviction.
What’s so special about a cardiac stress test, anyway? Greased tubes have slid in and out my behind and mouth. Something to be endured, I suppose, for “my own good,” but hardly an epiphany. Actually, if my gut performs anything more than silent service, I get annoyed, even frustrated with it. I’ve never had the urge to meet my plumbing.
But today was different. Today, I truly “saw” my heart. Sure, it was televised, but that’s intimacy in today’s world of virtual reality.
Hearts are mostly hidden, protected by the chest wall and its membrane “sac” the pericardium. Yet the heart is hardly “silent.” According to Heart Math researchers, this area of the chest generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body, 60 times greater than the brain. (2)
Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, the Kabbalah and other ancient cultures consider the heart and pericardium a major energetic center, the 4th chakra, and pivotal for our spiritual evolution. This view is in contrast to Biologic Psychiatry. My specialty considers the brain and its portfolio of neurotransmitters the location and explanation for mental health, illness and behavior. To be honest, I’m seriously under-whelmed by the brain.
As individuals, our thoughts often harass as much as help us. Worse, when called upon, the brain easily furnishes fancy logic for actions we “know,” “in our hearts” to be wrong. On a grander scale, daily reports of national, ethnic and other brutalities do not say much for brain’s capacity for rational thinking, either. Rather than reflecting an unbiased view, lofty ideas become the tools of justification for humanity’s territorial nature. “Metropolis,” the 1927 German film poignantly portrayed humanity’s challenge to unite the heart with the brain and inform our actions (3). Subsequent history has been a heart-stopping confirmation. We have a long way to go.
My eyes remained locked on the screen as the ghost-like silhouette morphed its contours with that familiar rhythm. Could it be, my heart was dancing?
You’re not as big as I imagined.
But you keep clenching, fully committed. No pause in your mission. No whining just because you’ll be doing the same-old, same-old in the next moment, and then the next. Only the brain could concoct that repetition translates to absurdity and purposelessness, and Camus’ complaint that life’s not making sense to us means life does not make sense. (4) Unlike me, my heart does not hold back from its purpose due to insufficient explanation for its toil, or fear of boredom and tomorrow’s depletion.
The technician announced my goal: keep marching until my pulse reaches 138. Like many in healthcare and science, I have come to embrace the “religion” of numbers. Numbers translate to certainty, even when their interpretation may be obscure to unknown.
The treadmill whirrs and the platform tilts. I feel the familiar surge of motivation to reach that number, and maybe, even beat it. I march. My heart stays the course as I climb the treadmill mountain. My pulse reaches 140 and I don’t collapse. This leads to downright cheering from my healthcare squad. But the accolades don’t stir my enthusiasm. I’m more in awe of the tenacity of my heart than the carrot-stick of my ego.
In fact, I’m in awe of my whole body. How could I be so casually dismissive of my heart, and my gut and the rest of my physical me? I feel sheepish about this habitual “bad” attitude.
Over the years, family, friends, colleagues and patients have confided similar disapproval to downright contempt toward their bodies, also. Usually the complaint is how dare you Body, fail Me? You are too fat, too slow, too old, and so on. We seem to have embraced the unquestioned role of “Body as Servant,” as opposed to “Body as Partner,” and certainly not our “Body as Master.” We must be the Master, who and whatever we imagine we are. When the body does not do our bidding, we are ready to declare war with it. Our doctors become the generals to lead us to “fight” mental illness, aging, AIDS, and the list goes on.
But history suggests war does not work so well, either with nations, diseases or ourselves. And I can only wonder, what impact our less-than-loving reproaches have on our bodies’ health. I make a pact with myself to reproach me the next time I, meaning my Ego, scolds my Body.
I’m sitting down, now, catching the last glimpse of my magnificent muscle. Call me corny, but I’m still in a state of reverence. That’s what I feel seeing my perpetual pulsation. Then it vanishes and the screen goes black.
So Ruth, my epiphany happened not in some nature-hugging mountain retreat, but among the blinking panels and video screen of a cardiac lab. Maybe Heisenberg was right-on with his Uncertainty Principle and ahead of his time, too, for humans. Perhaps we do change what we see and what we see can change us, if we allow ourselves to look through different eyes.
1. “The more precisely the position (of an electron) is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant and vice versa.” Heisenberg, Uncertainty Paper, 1927. http://www.aip.org/history/heisenberg/p08.htm
2. Heart Math http://www.heartmath.orgHeart
The heart, like the brain, generates a powerful electromagnetic field, McCraty explains in The Energetic Heart. “The heart generates the largest electromagnetic field in the body. The electrical field as measured in an electrocardiogram (ECG) is about 60 times greater in amplitude than the brain waves recorded in an electroencephalogram (EEG).”
4. Camus, Albert, Myth of Sisyphus, Gallimard Publishers, France1942