After a long night of restaurant work, I was leaning over to untie my shoes at home and I felt my first chest pains. It was only a slight pain when I took in a deep breath at first. A day later a fever came on suddenly and strong, so I called out of work the next few days to rest. The fever didn’t seem to go away though. It only got worse over the next two weeks. 101 up to 102 and even reaching past 103. It was more alarming every day until I had only one choice, and that choice was to go to work while sick to save myself from being looked at unfavorably by my employer. That night at work, I almost died on the floor of a steakhouse from cardiac tamponade in response to a fluid buildup between the heart and pericardium.
The day after my episode at work, I went to an urgent care, and they found a heart murmur. I promptly received an echocardiogram only to reveal that I had inflammation of the pericardium and an excess of fluid built up around my heart. The whooshing murmur came from my heart beating in the fluid. After seeing a cardiologist, he decided to treat me with NSAID’s (ibuprofen) to see if they could bring down the inflammation, but over the next few months my blood tests and symptoms showed that it never seemed to work. I had to receive surgery. They were to cut a “window” in my heart lining and remove the fluid providing me instant relief and promising I would get my life back.
The procedure did allow me to breathe easier temporarily, but it never felt like a full recovery as other symptoms began to creep up on me. A tender stomach, extreme fatigue, jugular vein distention, swollen ankles, and trouble breathing just to name a few. If you are reading this, I’m sure you know that these are some of the symptoms of heart failure. After these signs presented themselves, my cardiologist surrendered himself from care and told me to find a pericardial expert. I flew to Minnesota to see the one of the best doctors in the world in this particular field. It was truly an honor and a privilege to be a patient of his. After a long, nervous day of testing, he diagnosed me with constrictive pericarditis that was causing left and right ventricular heart failure. I underwent another open-heart surgery the very next day for a full removal of my pericardium. The surgery went very well with the team that I was so very fortunate to have. I couldn’t have asked for more in that category, but there was still one big question left unanswered. What was it that caused me to be so sick?
Infectious disease doctors from all over the hospital were visiting me day after day trying to get to the bottom of why I was in a hospital bed without a pericardium at age 27. Of course there had to be a reason, so they kept searching. After both of my drainage tubes had been removed and I was about ready to leave for home, they still didn’t know what had caused it. They planned to send me home with a line in my arm to receive general antibiotics for precautionary purposes. As the team came to my room to install my new line, they were stopped over the handheld radio because the “infectious disease detectives” found something. They found antibodies that my body had built up to fight a certain fungus. That fungus was called coccidioidomycosis (also known as “valley fever.”)
Human’s immune systems are truly amazing. I never knew I had this in my body, yet I still survived. After looking up many different articles written on this fungus and its effects on the heart, I found some very unsettling information. Not only had there only been less than 100 recorded cases since the 1920’s like mine, most of them died within 72 hours from the constriction. If you recall one of my symptoms from the beginning of the story, (the rapid heart rate) you can share this feeling with me. The main cause of death in these particular cases is cardiac tamponade. I am lucky to be alive today.