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  • Writer's pictureAustin Birks

Head, Heart Beat, Knees, and Toes

I was talking to a friend of mine today, and he asked me how I was. I had not seen him since before Christmas, so when he asked me, I thought to myself, do I just do the classic English thing and just say, "Oh yes, I am fine, thank you very much for asking." Or do I say, "Well, let me think, where do I start?"

Okay, let us start with my being diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation, which is a condition where the top two chambers of the heart beat irregularly, often increasing the beats per minute from between 70 to 90, which is the normal average number of beats for the majority of people who do not have AF, which is what mine used to do, back in the good old days.

However, if, like me, you do have AF, then the heart rate can increase significantly from 120 up to 170 or even 200. This is, of course, not a healthy position to be in, as the risk of a heart attack or indeed blood clots or a stroke is much higher. It is also somewhat disconcerting as you can feel/hear the heart beating like the clappers, and try as I might to relax and regulate the breathing by employing relaxation techniques that I have learned from practicing Shotokan Karate for all these years, it does not stop the upper chambers from doing what they want to do.

Indeed, I wear an Apple Watch because it automatically records irregular heartbeats and gives me a daily, weekly, and monthly average. The numbers are somewhat surprising, as my watch tells me that for 48% of the time, I am showing AF. Now, this, to me, is a tad disconcerting, if the truth be told. Although having had an echocardiogram, which is quite a detailed examination of the whole heart area, the good news is that nothing else naughty was discovered, which is a relief. Furthermore, I had other tests done this week which indicated that while I clearly have AF and all that it entails, because my fitness levels have been retained due to Karate and the gym, I am still able to cope and live a normal life. The sensible thing to remember is simple: if you are exercising too hard and the heart is beating too fast, then slow down or stop.

So, my next steps are a meeting with a cardiologist to get a more detailed view of what is going on and why. Future options are taking beta-blockers which slow the heart down, which is the best option. Option 2 is a trip to the hospital, a local anesthetic, and then they turn the heart off and then zap it with several hundred watts of electricity. Now, this does not come without risks, of course, the most obvious being that it does not restart, in which case, one meets the good Lord.

Ironically, I actually watched one of those late-night medical documentaries the other day, and by sheer coincidence, they filmed a chap having the very same zapping treatment. It was all very calm and they switched him off then switched him back on again, not unlike rebooting your laptop, except without the fatal consequences, of course. To be fair, he was back on his feet in a couple of hours, and in his case, after tests, it had not worked so he had to do it again, and the second time around it worked. Interestingly, you are only allowed 3 strikes before you are out, as the heart does not like it very much, which is hardly surprising.

Last Saturday, I organized a very special Karate/Yoga course with my dear chum Holly Wells from HL Therapy. She is not only an expert Yoga/Pilates instructor but she is also a Shodan or first Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate. She put together a brilliant Karate-inspired Yoga lesson. To be honest, I did not think because of my knackered hips that I would be able to take part at all, but I thought just have a go and see how you get on, so I did and ended up doing 80% of the class. It was physically tough and I loved it, afterwards I felt better than I have done for ages and found that my hips were able to cope and were much more flexible than before the session. Straight after, I then taught Karate for an hour and a quarter, and the dojo was buzzing, and so was I. Of course, I monitored my heart rate and it was not too bad considering the physicality of the training. One beneficial aside to the whole AF agenda is that on occasions when I cannot sleep, I will put my watch on, go into my fitness app, and put it on the cross-trainer test.

So, because my heart is beating so fast, the app believes that I am exercising when in fact I’m fast asleep. Ironically, I can nod off and sleep for 7 hours and wake up to discover that I have burned off hundreds of calories from the luxury of my bed, no gym required it would seem. It also completes my fitness rings so to be fair a win/win all round. This makes a mockery, of course, of my usual fitness mantra of no pain no gain. So, clearly even with AF, there is a silver lining with the discovery of kip-aerobics as I like to call it, and as the song says, "Always look on the bright side of life," my dear chums.

Another joyous highlight of this week was my trip to the Podiatry (or feet) unit at Kidderminster hospital where two lovely nurses called Sarah and Melissa decided that my three ingrowing toenails needed immediate attention. Now if you have ever enjoyed the joy of an ingrowing toenail, it is indeed a uniquely painful experience. My big left toe has ingrowing nails on both the left and right-hand sides, meaning that both are equally painful. In addition, the little toe on my right foot also has an ingrowing nail.

The two ladies were very thorough, professional, and caring. They then set about digging out the naughty bits of the nail. This required the use of very sharp digging instruments that gouged into the skin to remove the offensive articles. Now very sadly for me, I was unable due to my low immune system to have any local anesthetic so the pain was very distinct and acute, and I just had to sit there and suck it up. What my mum used to say was being a brave soldier, when I was about 5, rather than 63.

To be fair, I did not resort to language of the Anglo-Saxon variety. No, to be fair, the noises that I made were more of a high-pitched squeak than a roar if truth be told. The ladies did the best that they could and used distraction methods to try and relieve the pain. After 30 minutes it was all over and they bandaged me up but not before they told me that I was going to require further surgery sooner rather than later, which they duly arranged. So now I enjoy the daily challenge of showering with one foot stuck out the shower while the other enjoys the luxury of a waterproof sock. I must resemble one of those Italian cherub statues that has one foot on tip toes while the other is stuck up behind while the torso is bent forward shooting arrows.

Now there is an image you do not want to dwell on my dear chums, suffice to say may be on reflection the next time someone asks me how I am, I shall just say I am very well, thank you for asking, and by the way it will be chemotherapy treatment 102 next Thursday.

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