Thursday, February 15, 2007

Curtain Call Part 1: Dancing on an empty stage

Now that Valentines Day is over and I don’t have to worry about killing the mood; let’s talk about hearts, specifically mine. There is something wrong with it; and unlike so many teen drama's or anime’s, there is nothing particularly romantic or exciting about it. The doctor’s do tests to determine a) what the problem might be and b) what test to do next. Fortunately, several months ago, I had a series of heart tests that found a condition called P.A.T.; which causes occasional pain but otherwise isn’t life threatening. This turns out to be a good thing because now, every time they do a test, they can see what the change is over that time. For instance, my resting heart rate seven months ago used to be 54 beats per minute. Now it is 97 bpm.

But those are just numbers. In the last several weeks, what used to be a worrying inconvenience is now center stage as my body seem to be unable to compensate for whatever is going wrong (including a heart rate which says I am running two marathons every night). Right now, I sleep between twelve and sixteen hours a day. Or rather I am not conscious more than 12 hours a day, as when simply typing like I am now, I can be overcome within 2-3 minutes and fall “asleep” for many hours. If I am woken, and stood up, I will merely fall over and go back to “sleep.” So, I don’t get to dictate when I am awake that much. Often when awake, I have one or more signs of heart problems like nausea, dizziness, fatique, fuzzy headedness. So I get a couple good hours a day, as long as I sit quite still. Walking more than a few blocks or standing up for a length of time usually brings a faint and falling over. That happened two day ago when I went to my local post office to get a package and twice on the weekend when I fed the squirrels. I also sometimes have difficulty getting enough oxygen (at least that is how it feels), or cooling off.

Ironically, I can go fencing. I did on Monday night, doing some alternating matches for 55 minutes. Because as soon as my heart rate goes above a certain point, my body is full of endorphins which make me feel GREAT! I only did 55 minutes because my face had turned sort of a pale green and I was about to pass out anyway (Four week ago this didn’t happen until several hours had passed). The endorphins made me feel clear headed for the next several hours. It was like being “normal” again. But then I went to bed, with 20 mg of diazepam, and a double dose of prescription level painkillers. And I drifted in and out of consciousness for many hours hallucinating that I was being tortured by the Stasi (the East German Secret Police). Which actually sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it. Except that I was falling to sleep, going into REM, the pain was waking me up, but not to full consciousness and I would fall back again repeated for hours as I moaned and tried to shout because from my viewpoint I was in a white tiled room being beaten and tortured by the secret police. It also kept me in bed for just over 24 hours. all for 55 minutes of alternating judging and epee fencing.

So I think you know what comes next: As of this Saturday, I will not longer be a fencer, at least for the foreseeable future. I am not going to the Western Championships, or the BC Championships or the Summer Nationals. I am not going training or cross training. I am not holding an epee in my hand until this problem is identified and solved.

And yes, they might find out what it is right away and I will be able to come back to training within a few weeks and not lose the conditioning months of intensive effort and pain have cost. But that is not very likely. Doctor’s do tests to find eliminate the easiest factors first. So I can tell you I do not have cancer, nor a thyroid condition, I don’t have an elevated white blood cell count (so no infections anywhere in my body), nor is there a problem with the biological agents which transverse the membranes of my heart cueing when it is to beat. I don’t have mono. I don’t have any detectable secondary condition which could be causing heart problems. I also don’t have an irregular heartbeat or sections of my heart which are disintegrating, at least not yet. On Monday I meet with my GP again to go over the last test results, and I will push to get an echo: a sonic picture of my heart to compare with the one from months ago in order to find out if there has been any permanent damage as yet. But remember, this is Canada. Which means I still haven’t seen a cardiologist; I am on a waiting list. So when things get too bad, I can go to ER. Or I can try to get checked into the hospital (and sit in a room with three other people surrounded by two curtains and have to explain needle phobia every day). Or I can hang on until the next test, and the next one, and try to hold on to a bit of my life here and there. Like blogging, when I can.

And in the meantime Linda and I try to evaluate the short and long term situation and change our lives. Our vacation camping on the Oregon coast next month is out. But maybe getting a walker or a wheelchair so I can go outside more is in. Our food costs are going up because I can’t stand up to cook consistently. And we don’t plan more than a few hours ahead, unless someone is with me (no point planning a dinner out if I fall asleep at 4:00 pm and can’t be woken up until 8:30 pm as happened this week).

So, tonight we are heading to Seattle for a women’s epee tournament on Friday. I booked that two weeks ago when fencing was against doctor’s orders and inadvisable but still mostly possible. Now, it is against logic, against orders, inadvisable and "maybe" possible. Seems like a stupid, suicidal thing to do doesn’t it?

I am not going over to win. I am not even going over to fence the whole competition. I am going because I am not about to spend the next several weeks or months or years playing “What if?" Because, whether I like it or not, whether I want it or not, what is happening to me and my body is not something I can control. I cannot control what it does to me, nor can I control the outcome. Maybe I will see a cardiologist and there will be an operation or treatment and I will be back fencing this fall. Maybe I will have a pacemaker put in or my heart has already enlarged or changed enough that I will never be able to fence competitively again. Maybe with a cane and some oxygen, Linda and I will take a vacation. Maybe I won’t be leaving this city for a very long time. I can’t see the future. I can however, go to Seattle tonight and hopefully fence tomorrow.

Having watched these last few weeks my life being invisibly smashed up and having my only significant trips being to hospitals, ER rooms, doctor’s offices and testing centers I know this: ½ a dream is better than no dream. ¼ or 1/6 or 1/8 of a dream is STILL better than no dream. I want to see again the women I have met through fencing. I want to stand on the strip trying to outthink and out-react my opponent and knowing she is trying to do exactly the same to me. I want that feeling when your body reacts faster than you can think, and comes up with that perfect touch. I even want that feeling where you get past her guard only to see your tip just miss her arm and sail off into useless space. I LOVE epee. Sure, I may have disliked Mr. Ho and many of the bullies I have met or trained with in the sport. But I had gotten a new coach two/three weeks ago. And just because some jerks do epee doesn’t make it a bad sport. I still love epee. And maybe this time I will figure out the right counter to Birgit or the right lunge or bind for Tucker-Williams. Or maybe this time Marla Clem will beat me.

I don’t want to win or get a ranking. Things like that become irrelevant when goals like walking to the store and back become major victories. My goal for the Canadian Nationals was to a) Get out of the pools and the top goal was to b) get to the superpools. I made the first one; didn’t get to the second. That’s okay. This time, my goal is, with a chair to sit in between bouts, to a) fence all my pool bouts. My “supergoal” is to b) finish a Direct Elimination bout. That’s it. No fencing till I drop this time: because now I know how dangerous that is (like congestive heart failure dangerous). So when my face starts turning a bit pale, or I can’t get enough oxygen then it’s over. I default. Even if I am up 4-3 in a pool bout; I default, she wins. Because a pool bout isn’t work dying for.

Many will probably conclude that I am stupid or foolish or whatever it is people conclude when they aren’t you and don’t have to sit in your skin for 24 hours a day. With so little control left with my body and my life and with my future an uncertainty this is what I choose: to decide how I am going to say goodbye to fencing and in doing so say goodbye to 20 years of a body that could always be pushed farther, and did more than any non-athletic person I ever knew: Marathons, 1,000 mile hikes, long distance cycle trips, swimming, skiing, and competitive fencing.

Then Saturday, I will start to say hello to the body I have for the present time, and we will learn best how to live with each other. With fencing, I will leave behind many of the social friends and associates I see regularly. So this immediate future will be and is, a little socially difficult. Any support would be appreciated.


Faith said...

Dear Beth -

We've never met but I want to send my unwavering support. Being in a body that no longer does what you want it to sucks. If you're up for one last hurrah, and Linda's right there beside you, I'll be waiting for your results - whether you make it through a pool or not.

Good luck sister.

Wendryn said...


I haven't been through anything nearly this drastic but I know it's really hard to adjust to a body that no longer does what you are used to being able to do.

Good luck, take care, keep writing. Whether or not you are fencing, you are still an interesting person.

Oh, by the way, I'm about halfway through Zed. It's good.

Best wishes for the tournament, too.


kathz said...

I'll look forward to hearing how you do, even if it's just a single hit ... even if you decide to sit it out and watch. The way you write about fencing is terrific. The way you write about anything makes it interesting and worth reading.

Good luck to you - and to Linda, who must be having a hard time too. Keep telling us how it goes.

Sometimes living and carrying on is the real victory.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Faith, Wendryn & Kathz: Thanks for the encouragement - I'll be back Saturday and hope to blog about the trip at the first chance I am awake long enough to do so (so probably Sunday) - I kind of feel I am in a "Flowers for Algernon" for the body. - Wierd.

Wiccachicky said...

This whole situation totally sucks -- it's always terrible when your body won't let you do things you love. So best of luck - I hope the support network you have helps get you through this!!

B.V. Brus said...

I'm sorry you don't get to fence. I'm happy you're taking care of your health first.

kathz said...

I've just looked up the results and see you managed 7th and an E ranking for 2007 - and that Linda made 14th and had some good pool fights. I hope you didn't push yourself further than was wise and that you're not suffering too much as a result of fencing - but congratulations to both of you.

Sober @ Sundown said...

Hi Beth,

I am glad you went to the tournament, and hopefully, you will not suffer too much from the exertion. I look forward to hearing all about it.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Ow - made it back, and now in recovery mode, which means through it FEELS like I have some sort of bone cancer, I don't - once I can sit up for while and use my arms again I will tell all - thanks

belledame222 said...

Glad you went and made it back. I'm so sorry to hear all this, how frightening and awful. shit. I hope they figure out what's wrong quickly, and that you can live as full a life as possible, whatever happens. anyway, lots of people are rooting for you; even when you're not fencing, you're clearly a fighter.

Jim said...


We both have our problems. You have the harder road.

No matter how things go (and I have faith that they will turn around for both of us) you will ALWAYS be a fencer and you will ALWAYS be my sister-in-arms!