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He’s got rhythm: Columnist makes A-fib list

On the night of Feb. 21, I learned I have atrial fibrillation, a condition that can cause my heart to beat irregularly and way too fast. I didn’t learn this from test results or from a mobile screening program in a van down by the river. I learned it through experience; I had my first episode of atrial fibrillation, and my heart started beating irregularly and way way too fast. 

Considering the circumstances at the time, I would have appreciated the courtesy of a text or a Facebook notification or some kind of heads-up that the episode was coming. But whoever or whatever is in charge of these things — G-d? Jesus? Allah? Brahma? Science? Nature? Fate? Luck? Stephen Hawking? —  just dropped it on me.

It seems to me that the responsible He, She, They or It must have been feeling impish Feb. 21 because an A-fib experience clearly wasn’t the only thing He (or She, They, It) had in mind. Here’s what else I learned that night:

• If you’re going to find out through direct experience that you have a notable, albeit manageable, medical condition, it’s preferable to find out in private, rather than in public.

• If the setting is unavoidably public, it’s better if you are not among six individuals being honored for their work in media at an event of the St. Louis Press Club, putting you at the center of attention.

• If you are nonetheless among those being honored for their media work, your unexpected medical episode will feel less embarrassing in hindsight if the 400 or so people in the audience are not fellow journalists, academicians specializing in communications, professionals from public relations and advertising firms, media company executives, family members, treasured friends, and current and former colleagues.

• But if that’s who is in the audience, you’re better off if your medical episode doesn’t kick in halfway through your eight-minute portion of the evening’s program when everyone in the audience is watching you because only you and emcee/interviewer Mike Bush of KSDK-TV are on stage.

•  If that’s when your very first A-fib episode starts and your heart’s beating irregularly and 170 beats a minute, and throwing you totally off your game with everybody watching, it’s great that folks had been laughing at the journalism-comedy bit you wrote based on facts from earlier columns about Geraldo Rivera. But what about the equally true funny stuff still to come about Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Roger Ailes’ lawyer?

• And if your out-of-whack heartbeats and your inability to continue interrupts the Press Club’s event, and that confuses and concerns the media-heavy members of the audience, and it’s still just you and Mike Bush on stage, the one thing you absolutely, definitely, really should NOT do is pass out.

I passed out.

From what people told me later, that sounds more dramatic than it actually was. I was sitting in a chair using a hand-held microphone to banter with Bush when I lost consciousness. My head tilted back a ways and stayed there. My hand opened, and the mic hit the floor.

Bush told me afterward that he first thought the move might be part of the presentation. A lot of people in the audience shared that view. But he quickly realized something was wrong and called out to the audience for a doctor to help.

My sister, Caryn Levinson, a retired registered nurse with emergency room experience, got from her banquet table to the stage almost instantly and found me already coming to. Her sense is that I was out for no more than 15 seconds.

After getting my bearings, I knew I couldn’t finish my performance/presentation. I stood up slowly, walked on my own across the stage and down the few steps to the banquet room floor. A Maryland Heights police officer stayed close in case I got shaky. 

The Press Club folks on hand — President Bill Greenblatt, Executive Director Glenda Partlow, Development Coordinator Laura Schnarr and event producer Marci Rosenberg — had called 9-1-1, and paramedics from the Maryland Heights Fire Protection District soon showed up, made sure I was stable and took me by ambulance to the emergency room at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.

Dr. Ernesto Romo and his E.R. team methodically slowed my racing heart with medications, fluids, close monitoring of vital signs and time. A few hours later, the irregular rhythm converted back to standard rhythm, ending the episode. I spent about 20 hours at the hospital.

Here’s what I know, based on the treatment and tests I got and my conversations with Missouri Baptist doctors; an additional briefing from my primary care physician, Dr. Robert Heaney of St. Louis University’s SLUCare Physician Group; and an examination and consultation a week later by Dr. Ali A. Mehdirad, a cardiologist and cardiac electrophysiologist, also with SLUCare:

I did not have a heart attack. I did not have a stroke. I’m more than 90 percent certain that I’m not dead. Overall, my risk score on the medical profession’s scale for A-fib is very low.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common kind of heart rhythm problem, affecting 2.7 million to 6.1 million people in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people have A-fib and don’t  know it. Without proper treatment, it can lead to strokes. 

I know I was fortunate to have smart, caring and resourceful people around me and with me Feb. 21, from Mike Bush on stage to family and friends who attended the event and stayed with me at the hospital, the Press Club folks in charge, the Maryland Heights paramedics, and the women and men of the emergency department and cardiac care unit at Missouri Baptist.

My A-fib episode was a little scary and very weird. It played out amid a set of circumstances that were as unlikely as they were absurd.

All that aside, the truth is that I learned something important: I have a medical condition that poses some danger to me, and I’m now receiving treatment for it.

And because there was some news and social media coverage of the Press Club event, I’ve also heard from hundreds of people − old friends, former colleagues, family members near and far and, above all, readers − who have voiced their concern and support, offered their encouragement and expressed their appreciation for my work.

How can you beat that?