My PCT Dreams and Why I’m No Longer Hiking
I planned to start hiking the PCT on April 18 (my birthday), but now I can’t.
I’ve spent a lot of the last two years dreaming about the PCT. I began counting down to this endeavor when I secured my PCT permit in November. First by the months, then by the weeks, and then, as my flight to San Diego was quickly approaching, by the days.
My start date was getting so close. I started imagining myself on trail and could very clearly envision myself dirty and windblown from the desert with feet that ache from 20+ mile days. I could see myself laughing with new trail friends and a giant smile on my face as I curled up in my sleeping bag saying goodnight to Michael every night in our little tent.
Unfortunately, these dreams faded away one day before flying out to San Diego and three days before starting the trail.
To back up a bit, I have a history with heart problems. I went into cardiac arrest in August 2017 and received an internal defibrillator (ICD) later that month. In September 2017 I had open heart surgery where they “unroofed” a part of my heart muscle that was covering my LAD artery and causing blood flow blockages. I went to cardiac rehab for a few weeks and graduated with flying colors. A few months later in December I found out that I had a blood clot and therefore had to delay my final heart procedure, a cardiac ablation, which would help get rid of my arrhythmias. I was put on blood thinners and anti-arrhythmic medications. During this time, I could do light exercise as long as I kept my heart rate under 140 beats per minute, but my doctors advised me to cancel my PCT 2018 plans. I was devastated. In May 2018 I found out that the blood clot was gone, so I went back to the hospital four weeks later for a cardiac ablation. I waited another four weeks to do a treadmill stress test, just to make sure everything looked good. By July 2018 my doctors told me I was good to go.
Since then I’ve worked on building back up my cardio endurance and strength. I occasionally went through bouts of nervousness and/or anxiety during hikes, runs, and tough workouts, worrying that something bad with my heart was going to happen. However, all these little spells were just my mind playing tricks on me. I’ve been receiving a download of my ICD activity every three months and for the last year everything has looked totally fine and normal. There was the occasional string of quick beats during exercise, but nothing that my ICD had to kick in and pace me out of and nothing worrisome to my doctors. I felt stronger and more confident every week.
My heart was fixed and I was ready to pursue my PCT dreams.
The PCT: One Week Out
The week leading up to leaving for the PCT I was recovering from being sick. I had a fever along with chest and shoulder pain whenever I inhaled. You don’t realize how much you breathe until it hurts! I saw my primary care doctor and, based on my symptoms, she figured I had pericarditis, which is inflammation of the lining of the heart. She did some blood tests, advised me to take ibuprofen to help with the inflammation, and scheduled an appointment for me to see a cardiologist to ensure everything my heart looked OK before starting the PCT.
The ibuprofen worked and I was back to normal. I was going to cancel my cardiologist visit for the upcoming Friday, but after a call from my PCP telling me that my blood test showed elevated troponin (a group of proteins that are released into the blood when damage is being done to the heart) canceling was no longer an option.
I went to the cardiology appointment last Friday. The appointment went well and my cardiologist didn’t seem worried. Just to be sure, he scheduled an echo to make sure there was no fluid around my heart and a treadmill stress test to make sure there were no blockages in my heart for Monday, the day before flying out to San Diego. Yes, the timing was impeccable. Although the appointment went well I had a bad feeling. I started tearing up as a I left the hospital and spent a few minutes crying in my car before driving home.
After I got some tears and frustration out of my system I started to feel more positive about these tests going fine. My heart has been working great for a year and, trust me, I tested it—intense HIIT workouts, 20-mile days while backpacking, five-mile runs. How could it all of a sudden not be working properly?
I should be fine.
The PCT: Three Days Out
I posted my gear list and my bags were packed. Was I jinxing myself by being so prepared and so excited? I was less than 24 hours from flying to San Diego.
I walked into the appointment feigning confidence. The echo was quick and there was no fluid around my heart. Success! I just had to make it through a few minutes on the treadmill.
I started walking on the treadmill thinking, “I got this. I am strong and I got this.” I needed to get my heart rate up to 160 bpm and was sitting at 135 bpm after ten minutes of speed walking at an incline. The cardiologist just finished exclaiming how in shape I was when I started feeling lightheaded and my heart rate spiked to 200 bpm.
I went into ventricular tachycardia (VT) and my PCT dreams were over.
The PCT: No More
I left the hospital that day with a sliver of hope that I could go back on anti-arrhythmic medication again and delay my PCT start by a week or two. However, after a conversation with an electrophysiologist and emails with my doctors at the Mayo Clinic, the consensus was that I needed another cardiac ablation and that I should cancel my PCT plans for this summer.
I have felt this type of devastation before—learning you need open heart surgery is no treat—but this was a little different. I already worked through my heart problems. I dealt with the recovery and overcame the fear of going into cardiac arrest again. My heart was totally fine. Now, out of the blue, it is not. No one can tell me why or how this happened.
Instead of flying to California to start the experience of a lifetime I’ll soon be flying to Minnesota to get a cardiac ablation at the Mayo Clinic.
I am grateful that these issues started now rather than after I began hiking, but this doesn’t necessarily lessen the pain I feel. They shouldn’t have started happening at all. I’m back to the point where I to go on a half-mile walk around the block and spend the whole time scared that I’ll go into VT and that my defibrillator will pace me. I know this sounds dramatic.
If you’re feeling generous I would appreciate any prayers and good vibes you can send my way hoping that this next procedure goes well.
The Bright Side?
Maybe I’ll learn something from this experience. Maybe I’ll find the silver lining. Maybe I’ll plan a PCT 2020 thru-hike. Maybe there is a bright side. Maybe. But right now I tear up every time I think about the PCT. My PCT plans have been thwarted twice by my heart issues and I’m not sure I can go through this disappointment again.
One great note is that Michael will still be hiking the PCT. He doesn’t have much of a choice in the matter; I am making him do it. At least one of us should go enjoy the trail, right? He’s been such a pillar of support for me through this whole mess. It hurts both of us, because we dreamed of doing this together, but I am excited for him and I’ll cheer him on (despite missing him desperately) along with all the other 2019 PCT thru-hikers. Hopefully, we’ll be able to hike the Colorado Trail together in September like we planned.
A Note to PCT Thru-Hikers
Savor every moment out on the trail. Be thankful that you are out there. Please. You are so lucky.
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