When I was in high school, my advanced biology class did a unit on the circulatory system. It was boring. Who cares about units of blood pumping through the heart and carrying it to the rest of the body? Still, we had to study it. Part of the course involved blood pressure–what it meant, the taking of it, etc. We stood in line dutifully as our biology teacher recorded our blood pressure in a neat, little log. When he got to me, he attached the cuff, squeezed mightily, and watched as the arrow plummeted.
“Huh,” he said, and pumped the cuff again. Free-fall.
He decided to switch arms, attaching the cuff to my left arm. Pumppumppump. Release.
I watched the needle fall.
He smiled at me, shaking his head. “Congratulations, Dana. Your blood pressure is so low that you are officially dead.”
My junior year in high school, I started taking anti-depressant medication. This supposedly can raise your blood pressure, although I think the bigger concern was what was going on in my head. My doctor strapped the cuff on my arm, took the reading and gave a little laugh. “Well, welcome to the land of the living.”
When I was a college sophomore, home for winter break, the car my mother and I were in was T-Boned at an intersection. The offending car was going quite fast, and despite the seat belt, my head smacked into the dashboard. As I was riding in the ambulance from the accident scene, the EMT took my blood pressure and said, “Are you a runner? Like, marathons?”
“This is crazy,” she said. “You are way low, even after all of this. You are in an ambulance, and…dang.”
My blood pressure has always been something I never, ever had to worry about. It’s always been low or (at worst) normal. For the record, normal BP is anything under 120/80. For years, mine was something like 90/65, which suited me just fine.
It was especially fine because it meant that I could eat my weight in delicious, salty food.
I used to joke with Mama about it, because I love my salty, salty, snacks and my French fries and my Asian food, loaded with fish sauce and soy sauce and all of the good things in life.
“That’s a lot of salt,” she’d say, but she’d laugh. Neither of us had to worry about that.
“If the Disease Gods give me anything, let it be something cutting out sugar. Fuck sugar,” I told Mama. “I don’t need it. But if they ever tell me I have to live without salt, I am in big trouble.”
I am Salty Snack Queen. Send me your popcorn, your Fritos, your beef jerky. I am on board, people.
Unsalted food = tasteless crap that’s not worth eating.
But like I said, I don’t have to worry about that kind of thing.
Imagine Ms. Smug Low Blood Pressure woman’s surprise when, draped in her designer surgical gown, she was told that her blood pressure was 188/120.
“That can’t be right,” I said. “I’ve never had high blood pressure.”
“Never?” the nurse asked.
“Well, it was a little high a couple of weeks ago for my pre-op appointment,” I said, “but I’d gotten lost twice trying to find the office and I’d been screaming at my husband on my cell phone, because I hate being lost, so I didn’t think anything of it.”
“Well, you sure don’t look like someone with this kind of blood pressure,” the nurse said. “You’re tiny.” She shook her head. “Let’s try the other arm.”
Still bad news.
“Maybe something’s wrong with this machine,” the nurse said. “Lemme get another.”
The anesthesiologist walked in. “Check out this lady’s blood pressure,” the nurse clucked. “This is really weird.”
His eyes widened. “Holy crap,” he said. Then came the barrage of questions: Chest pain? Blurred vision? Headache? Did high blood pressure run in the family? Were my parents still alive?
“I feel fine, and as for my family, well, we’re cancer people,” I said. “Not heart attack people.”
“Well, a blood pressure like this is heart attack territory,” he said. “As in, you need to go to the ER.”
“Bullshit. You’re kidding me.”
He looked a little annoyed then. “I am not shitting you.” He gestured toward the number on the machine. “That number right there? We call that ‘hypertensive emergency.’ It means that you are at serious risk for having a heart attack or a stroke right. now.”
“I guess my tricky little operation’s off the table?”
“Nobody’s gonna touch you today with a blood pressure like that–except for an ER doc, which you should see right now. I will personally drive you over.”
“Look, I feel fine. Please don’t make me go. My husband’s a doctor and he’s at work today, so can I just get a ride back to Longmont and promise that I’ll go to the ER down there?” I pleaded. I even brought out the puppy eyes.
“Do you promise?” he said, narrowing his eyes.
“I swear. Absolutely.”
I totally lied.
I went home, ate breakfast and then became really pissed off because I’d gotten up at 5am and fasted for hours and arranged for a ride to the surgical center and wasted all of that dang time and no operation.
“I’m not going into the ER,” I told my husband. “I feel fine. It’s just a fluke–some weirdo bodily quirk. There’s no way it was really that high. I do not have high blood pressure. I don’t. It’s impossible.”
“I’ll bring home a blood pressure cuff,” my husband said. “And at least call your regular doctor and make an appointment, okay?”
“Gah! I told you! Nothing is wrong!”
“Call him,” my husband said.
Did I call him? Nope. Because I was fine!
Until I wasn’t.
Until my spiffy new home-care blood pressure machine registered 196/122 when I took it for a trial run.
“We’re going to the ER,” my husband said. “Pack a bag. They’re going to admit you with a reading like that.”
“Don’t tell the girls,” I said. “I’ll be sent home, just wait and see. This will be fine.”
The blood pressure machine in the ER started buzzing and bleeping and lights started flashing on the dang thing. It was like a spastic R2D2.
“Fuck!” I said.
“Hey, can you turn that thing off?” I snapped. “It’s really loud. It’s embarrassing me.”
The doctor looked grimly at my husband. “That’s crazy high. That’s organ failure.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of attached to my internal organs, so this was a sucky piece of news.
“We need to scan her brain. I’ll call down.”
“But I feel fine, dammit!” No chest pain. No blurred vision. No heart palpitations. No confusion. No loss of feeling in any of my limbs. Only a teeny leetle headache–barely Tylenol-worthy.
My brain checked out just fine. So did my kidneys, and my kidney function, and my adrenal glands. This took several days in the hospital to figure out and I swear, they took more blood than a coven of vampires. It’s like I was on loan to the Cullen family for an entire weekend.
Also, being on the cardiac unit is creepy.
They ask you all sorts of unsettling crap when they admit you, like “if anything happens, do you want a priest on hand?” and “are you an organ donor?” and “do you have a medical (do not resuscitate) directive?”
They also have those little sticky heart monitor thingys on you at all times, so the nurse’s station can tell if you are out of bed and moving around, and then they come check on you, even in the middle of the night, when all a girl wants to do is have a pee in private.
I felt kind of bad for the nurses, though, because I didn’t feel sick enough to be sleepy and pleasant. I was pissed off and bored the whole weekend and they bore the brunt of my restlessness, although my husband was treated to a couple of tantrums, too. I didn’t want to be on the cardiac unit all weekend. I wanted a big glass of wine and my couch and my kids and my dog and a walk in the beautiful weather.
I did get a lot of takeout meals delivered via husband-mobile because I am spoiled. Other than that, the whole business sucked.
Although there are some test results still pending, they really couldn’t find anything wrong with me. The only thing (besides the scary, alien blood pressure) wrong with me was a urinary tract infection and a slight potassium deficiency.
“You’re the healthiest cardiac patient I’ve ever seen,” the cardiologist said, chuckling.
I left the hospital with a ton of follow-up visits with the cardiologist and the nephrologist and a nifty vial of blood pressure medication. I’m also supposed to check my blood pressure daily until my follow-up appointments. Yesterday, it was 139/88. That medication is totally working, I thought smugly. Today? 194/108.
I’ll keep you posted.
But guess what I also left the hospital with? A directive to “reduce and monitor” my sodium intake.
That’s like asking a junkie to “cut back” on the heroin.
I am very displeased about this, because I am finding things out that I never had to know, like how much sodium is in a Claussen’s pickle, one of my favorite snacks on the planet. This is assholery of the first water.
How am I doing on my new “monitored sodium” diet? Today for lunch I had a ham and swiss cheese sandwich with mustard and lettuce and pickles on it. But I only ate half. So there.