A little bit ago, I received a message from a fellow UT MFAer named Eden asking if I’d check out a video she’d made and give her some feedback. In addition to being one killer fiction writer, Eden is basically a workout genius and is benevolently sharing her knowledge with the internet by way of her blog, Sweat to Smile, and her Youtube channel. If you feel like being inspired to be healthy and impressed by the level of balance that I definitely don’t have, watch it now (also, the clock. The clock is great).
Watching this video convinced me of two things. First, Eden is actually a demigoddess sent to Earth to show the helpless plebeians like me how to become warriors for an eternal battle of truth and justice against ultimate decay. Second, I should really work out more. I’ve never been the most active of people, but I’ve been realizing lately that I might just be afraid of doing anything truly strenuous physically.
In college, I joined an Ultimate Frisbee team in my first semester, but I had to quit when my health took a crazy left turn. I went from being generally healthy to having migraines a few times a week, getting lightheaded and dizzy, having trouble climbing the stairs to my third floor dorm room. I went six weeks without glasses and couldn’t see my computer screen well enough to do my homework effectively. It was a hot mess, and I spent my winter break seeing four different doctors to figure out what was wrong with me.
Along with complicated ocular migraines and spots of demyelination in my parietal lobe diagnosed by my long-time vision therapist and my neurologist, I was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome by my general physician and my cardiologist after two different EKGs. Then came the holter monitor, then the two-week long heart monitor that summer. The cardiologist noticed a few periods of significant elevation in my heart rate during those two weeks — things that might be on par with a heavy workout, but I wasn’t working out at all — so he recommended me to an electrophysiologist who decided to do a mapping of my heart and an ablation to cure me of the WPW if it was necessary. We scheduled the procedure for two days before Thanksgiving in 2010.
About a week before I had my surgery, an acquaintance of mine named Anne Jackson passed away suddenly during a practice run with the Nyack College cross-country team. I had just transferred to Nyack that semester, so Anne was really a friend of some of my friends, and I didn’t know her well at all, just enough to say hello in passing. But to some of my friends that semester, she was a best friend who’d been there over the past four years as a confidante and encouragement. Even those of us who didn’t know her well were wracked by grief. Anne was a light in the Nyack community, and it truly did feel darker after she was gone.
I went home to have my heart surgery, and after the electrophysiological mapping of my heart, the electrophysiologist decided that I didn’t have WPW because my heart didn’t react to being induced to beat over 500 bpm the way a typical WPW heart reacts. They couldn’t pinpoint the exact location of the accessory pathway, so they couldn’t ablate the tissue, so they left it alone. I went from having a fixable, understood condition to having a…something wrong with your electricity, but we don’t really know what. The doctor never scheduled a follow-up with me, and it would be nearly a year before my general physician sent me to a third heart doctor in Pittsburgh to help me make sense of the new diagnosis. That cardiologist called it “wacky electricity,” and not quite WPW. Exercise, he said, should be safe, but I can’t have the amount of caffeine in a single shot of espresso. But that explanation happened a year later, and in the meantime I began to feel my heartbeat whenever it raised above about 100 bpm in every vein in my body. I’d felt it in my neck and in my forehead before, but after the procedure, whenever it was high I could feel my heart beating in my chest and toes and eyelids.
When I got back to campus, we had a memorial service for Anne. I heard that she had an undiagnosed heart condition that could have been found with EKG, and that if she had been diagnosed, she would have had to give up running and give up performing as an opera singer in order to maintain her health. Those who knew her well unanimously agreed that such limitation would have killed Anne’s spirit. She was passionate about music and she was passionate about running. Those two things gave her life.
But exercise has never been my passion. I’m not a naturally active person, after all. All I knew in the post-failed-surgery haze was that I didn’t want to die, and something like what was wrong with me killed this beautiful human being that I had wanted to know.
As I watched Eden’s video, I wanted to be able to do those insane sideways planks because they looked so cool and really impressive. But then she mentioned getting your heart rate up, and I actually got scared. My average resting heart rate is already much higher than the norm, and there have been instances where I’ve taken my pulse and clocked it between 175 and 185 bpm, only to have it drop back down to about 120 a couple minutes later. It usually happens when I climb stairs too quickly, but sometimes I’ll be laying in bed, completely relaxed and all of a sudden my heart is skyrocketing up to 120 or 130 bpm — lying completely still. I took my pulse just now, and it’s going 90, and I’ve been sitting on the couch in my sister’s apartment for the past three and a half hours. Theoretically, I should be fine to do active things, but they scare me. Tai chi class is about the only exception, and I’ve had Tuesdays where I’ve had to seriously monitor myself to keep my heart rate from going up too quickly.
As I talked with Eden about her video, I mentioned that I get worried about my heart and that’s why I don’t do more exercise. She told me that she was born with a problem that required a major surgery, and she’s had to suffer with back problems her entire life. If I hadn’t already been impressed (and I was!), I definitely was and am now. I told her as much, and she said, “Really, you can overcome anything. There is always someone better and always someone worse. It took me a long time to learn that, but it helped me face my own fears about fitness. We just have to do the best we can.” Then she added, “Aside from writing, exercising is my passion.”
In that moment, she reminded me so much of Anne. According to the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference article that I linked to above, one of Anne’s favorite quotes came from American athlete Sasha Azevedo, as follows: “I run because it’s my passion and not just a sport. Every time I walk out the door, I know why I’m going where I’m going and I’m already focused on that special place where I find my peace and solitude. Running, to me, is more than a physical exercise. It’s a consistent reward for victory!” Anne’s response to the quote was, “That’s why I run!” (They also both have the same middle name, though Eden is with a Z and Anne is with an S).
The one thing about Anne that I remember myself and haven’t borrowed from the news is that she knew how to smile. Every article I’ve ever read about her mentions the fact, too. I remember her, sitting in the Nyack cafeteria, smiling and saying hello. It was that smile that made me want to get to know her, but I was shy and at the height of my distrusting people stage, so I never reached out to her like I wanted to. There were a lot of people that term that I wanted to get to know, but I was always too afraid to reach out. Anne didn’t strike me as the type to be afraid, and I could tell it by her smile.
I kept thinking about this while I talked with Eden, and I remembered that she named her blog “Sweat to Smile.” She’s another woman who has found a passion for physical activity, and it makes her smile. I wondered, if Anne had been diagnosed before she died, would she have quit running? Or would she have found a way to make it work so that she could keep running for the rest of her life no matter how long it was? It’s a question without an answer, but I think she’d have found a way. Running made Anne smile.
Ultimately, I don’t think I’ll ever be really passionate about working out or physical activity. Even before I got sick, I was pretty lazy and a bit of a homebody. But I do have passions that make me smile, and I do aim to pursue those relentlessly. And hopefully I’ll get myself to do a little exercise more regularly, too.