The Heart of a Survivor: The life-changing heart issue that could happen to anyone

It was a typical day in Jennifer White's world. She made breakfast, packed up the car, and dropped her two daughters - Haleigh and Madelynne - off at school. Even when was walking into work at the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center, Jennifer said she felt fine. Then, it happened.

"It was about an hour and a half into my work day," she explained. "I was sitting there, reading emails, and all of a sudden my heart just went into this crazy fast rhythm. I literally sat there and watched my heart beat through my shirt. I could see my chest moving because my heart was beating that fast."

That was Friday, August 12th, 2016 - a day Jennifer said her life changed forever.

"We laugh and joke about it today that I turned 35 on Monday and my world fell apart on Friday," she said.

At first, Jennifer said she thought it was a panic or anxiety attack, but the fast heart beat wouldn't stop.

"I'd never ever felt anything like this," she described. "We've certainly all had a really hard workout where we're gasping for air, things like that. I had never experienced this feeling."

"Pain was starting to come up into my neck, into my arms, and I knew I needed to get help," she said.

A co-worker drove Jennifer to the Emergency Room and the rest, she said, is a blur.

"They didn't give me a moment to sit down in the lobby and wait," she explained. "They took me directly back to a room and I was very pleased to have them respond immediately to that."

"I was swarmed by a group of people working on me," she continued. "I still didn't know what was going on - just knew I was under a lot of care and there were a lot of people taking care of me."

Jennifer White and her husband

Dr. Randall Bay, an Emergency Physician for the past 25 years, was there and said you could see that something was out of the ordinary.

"She had what's called PSVT, which stands for Paroxysmal Supraventricular Tachycardia," he explained.
"It's a long word - medical words are long - but it's basically a condition where the heart beats abnormally fast and often quite fast. The normal heart range is between 60 and 100 beats per minute and hers was in excess of 200."

Dr. Bay said this condition could happen to anybody or any age and gender:

"It's a result of fault connections or area of hyper excitability in the area of the heart where these fast impulses are conducted and it can occur in anyone from newborns to he elderly and it often occurs in people who otherwise have no heart conditions at all."

"The symptoms of it are generally fast-pounded heart rate, almost the sense of doom, breathlessness, some chest tightness, and a sense of anxiety," he continued. "It's commonly mistaken for an anxiety attack."

The way to fix it is by restarting the heart, like restarting your computer.

"You need to disrupt a short circuit that's in the heart," he explained. There's what we call accessory pathways and what can happen is you have this loop of a circuit that causes this fast heart rate. So, it's like your computer - When it freezes up, you turn it off. You reboot it and start it again and the circuits are cleared and the condition goes away."

The procedure to do that is called Chemical Cardioversion. A chemical, called Adenosine, is distributed through an IV into your body, then works its way through your circulatory system to stop the heart for a couple of seconds, clear the circuit, then restore a normal heart beat.

That was the hope for Jennifer, but the first attempt didn't work.

"For a split second, I felt good," said Jennifer. "I watched my heart rate drop on the monitor to a very low heart rate below 50 beats per minute. I stayed there for seconds and then my heart started racing immediately again."

Jennifer was allowed to do one more round of Chemical Cardioversion, but first - she had to wait:

"I was laying there on the table helpless and to be helpless is scary," she described. "My family's history is flashing before my eyes. I lost my grandmother to congestive heart failure earlier that year and I said - I have a whole life left to live still. This isn't my time. Let's try this again. It'll be fine. I have a great team of medical staff working on me. I have two beautiful daughters that I have a whole life to live for."

So they tried it again and this time - Jennifer's heart stopped.

"For under a minute, my heart didn't beat," said Jennifer. "So, I don't know exactly what happened during that time, but then - I kept breathing."

Jennifer's heart beat shot up once more, but after a little while - as she and her husband started talking to Dr. Bay about shocking the heart back into a normal rhythm - the chemical finally started working.

"As I'm sitting up and having the X-ray done, all of a sudden the clamminess is going away," she explained. "I'm starting to feel better and I'm watching the heart rate monitor out of the corner of my eye and it is the most beautiful statistic of numbers I've ever seen. It's coming down lower and lower and back into normal range. My blood pressure is right back at where it needs to be and the nurse is observing and she's like - how are we doing? How are you feeling? And I'm like - amazing! But exhausted. My heart had been racing over 300 beats per minute almost at five hours."

"I literally had performed the aerobic exercise without moving my body, but my heart was working as if I'd ran a marathon."

Jennifer White smiles with her oldest daughter after running her first 5k.

One year later, Jennifer did run. She participated in her first ever 5K - the Run With Carl - in Bettendorf, Iowa on Labor Day 2017.

"She's been putting a lot into it lately, training and everything," said her husband, Kirk. "She's been doing the Couch to 5K App."

It worked. Jennifer beat her goal by 10 minutes and said her heartbeat was normal.

"My heart is so strong feeling right now and that is the most awesome part of this," she said after the race.

Her goal is to run a 5K once a month during race season and continue her other goals - like making herself and her family eat better.

"When I go to pick something up, I say - is it worth it?" she laughed. "At this point in time, no - it's not worth it, but there are some days that a piece of chocolate is worth it."

Besides exercising more and eating healthier, Jennifer said the most important thing is knowing what to do if this ever happens again.

"For women, it's so very different than those typical symptoms that you about day in and day out. For each individual person, it can be very different, so it's important to be in tune with your own body, to know what's normal and what's not normal, and thankfully I was in tune and had those things, but it could happen at any time."

She said she learned about a lot of those things through her volunteer work with the American Heart Association.

"I have a very strong family history, which was one of the reasons why I started volunteering with the American Heart Association many years ago," she said. "I had that passion to give back. I knew the work that they did in our communities was something that was going to be important for my family and my family's future."

She said in March 2016, her father survived the "widow maker" heart attack. The year before, she lost her grandmother to congestive heart failure. What's more - her oldest daughter, Madelynne, was born with a hole in her heart.

"My daughter had a heart murmur and we went through all of the testing associated with that," she said. "Thankfully, it's a very common defect and something that will close by the time she is 18."

More than one year after her own heart event, Jennifer said it's more important now than ever before to volunteer and "Go Red."

"I'm the reason I 'Go Red,'" she explained. "We women take care of everyone else and never think about ourselves, but it is so important that we do."

"I got to walk away that day and continue to be there for my daughters and so it was scary, but I'm so incredibly thankful for the education that I received through the years of volunteering, through attending the Go Red For Women Luncheon, listening to other people's stories - that's what I have to thank, to say thank you. I'm still here to live another day and to watch those girls grow up and become the beautiful young ladies that they are."

And in order to keep living, Jennifer said she has to put herself first.

"My story changed," she continued. "That's what we as ladies need to do is to remember to take care of us. We are caregivers. We are co-workers. We are wives. We are moms. We can't do those roles or those jobs without taking care of ourselves first."

You can do that as well by attending the Go Red For Women Luncheon on Wednesday, November 1st at the RiverCenter in downtown, Davenport. WQAD News 8 is a proud sponsor of the event and Jennifer is the featured survivor.

"It's a great time to be out of the office or out of your home or out of your own crazy schedule and take some time for yourself," she said. "Take that hour, have a heart healthy lunch, have some laughs, share some tears, but ultimately you're taking care of yourself."

Jennifer White and family

You also have the opportunity to raise money with a room full of women and men who believe in the work the American Heart Association does in Iowa, Illinois, and across the country.

"Heart Disease is the number one killer of people in the United States and we've made extraordinary strives, but there's still so much ground to cover and anybody who contributes to the research aspect of cardiovascular medicine and cardiac conditions is doing themselves, their families, and the nation a big favor," said Dr. Bay.

To learn more about the 2017 Quad Cities Go Red For Women Luncheon, click here.

To learn more about the Go Red For Women movement, click here.

To learn more about the American Heart Association, click here.