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Cute guys, coffee and cardiomyopathy

February 9, 2018

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I was walking around Boston, having a joyous time. It was nice to be in a new city where I could forget my problems for a day. I wouldn’t say I was in epic emotional turmoil, but a month earlier I was officially diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy, put on some pretty hefty medication, told that my Nordic ski career was toast and that I would potentially never be able to exercise again. So I guess I was doing as well as any kid whose life was falling apart could. My parents were asleep in the hotel and I was supposed to meet them to tour Harvard later in the day (my thinking-way-too-far-ahead mom wanted me to see some grad schools). I lounged around the Theater District area, where my hotel was located, until I eventually met up with a friend of a friend who  turned into a date. He was cute and an MIT grad student (yeah, I know, quite an age gap) who was studying economics or something.

Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is a risky heart condition, where the left ventricle expands due to stress and the heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. It can eventually lead to heart failure and other serious problems. There is a range of triggers for the disease that includes viruses, alcoholism, obesity, smoking, cancer, genetics or sometimes athletic training. If left untreated DCM is commonly the cause for athletes to drop dead in the middle of exercising . In my case, cardiologists guess that while training on a Nordic ski team last year, I outperformed myself. I worked my heart so much that it caused the left ventricle to expand in order to compensate for the strain.

The MIT grad and I walked around the gardens in Boston Commons, got coffee in Beacon Hill and talked about ice climbing, a mutual hobby. The date was going well when, in the middle of the Boston Public Library, my heart started pounding and I collapsed. I was laying on the floor, feeling like my chest was about to split open, when a librarian came up to MIT guy and me to tell us the library was closing. I’m not quite sure what I said to her, but I think I yelled and for that, Ms. Librarian, I am sorry. She got the gist and called an ambulance. Cute MIT guy, being the superhero that he was, rode with me to the hospital and also waited with me until my parents came (I’m pretty sure this made my mom want me to marry him).

A team of cardiologists, specialists and Harvard Medical School students took great care of me overnight. One particular medical student must have spent two hours in my room talking to me about Nordic skiing and describing what medical school at Harvard was like, a conversation that made me realize that while what he did was supremely cool, medicine would never be for me. I was told that my condition was a result of a mixture of dehydration from flying for 16 hours, a nasty virus and pre-existing heart conditions. After a long night of tests and a final ‘OK’ from a specialized cardiologist, I was released. My parents and I quickly packed up our bags, left the bad memories of Boston behind, and drove up the coast to Brunswick.

After getting to Bowdoin everything went pretty smoothly. In fact, I fell in love with the school and began to recover from the horrors of Massachusetts. I come from a small town in Alaska, so the abundance of opportunities we have at our fingertips here at Bowdoin still amazes me. And as much as everyone complains about Bowdoin, both in person and online, I know that it is such an honor and gift to be here. That’s why the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving break were the most dreadful time period of my life, even worse than those days spent in Boston.

The prognosis for cardiomyopathy is variable. One-third of patients will get better with medication and rest, one-third will not change, and one-third will get worse. The third that gets worse leads to harsher therapies and potentially require a heart transplant. On November 10, I went to my cardiologist to take some tests that would give us an idea of how my heart was doing. As a result, for the two weeks leading up to break, in the midst of my second round of midterms, I was also anxiously awaiting test results that would tell me how my heart had changed since the beginning of the school year. A lot depended on these results because if they showed my heart was doing worse, I had already decided with my mom that I would have to leave Bowdoin to focus on my health. It was hard enough being at school and keeping up with doctors appointments, medications and the overwhelming mental state I was in. If my condition has worsened, all those obstacles would intensify.

I think this is when I started to really realize how much I love Bowdoin, and how good we all have it here. While I’m pretty sure that I’ve been slowly crumbling due to schoolwork, I’ve also been able to replace old hobbies, like skiing, with new-found joys like writing for the Orient and joining theater groups. More importantly, I’ve made amazing friends, been academically challenged like never before and become part of a close-knit environment that is cooperative and caring. My school, professors and friends have been enormously empathetic and helpful as I struggled with my health. The sayings really are right—you never think about how good you have it until you might have it taken away. One nerve-racking question, along with that proverb, raced through my brain for the two weeks before Thanksgiving. Was I going to be able to stay at this amazing place that had become my new home?

I’m very excited to say that the answer is yes. My test results came back, and while I’m not quite free from cardiologists, my prognosis looks good. My left ventricle is back to a normal size and it looks like my heart is no longer categorized as having cardiomyopathy. I may have lost my potential to participate competitively in the sport I love, had a pretty miserable first semester filled with endless dread and also messed up a date with a cute MIT grad, but I am lucky, as we all are, to be able to call Bowdoin home for at least one more semester.

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