The Heartfelt kindness of my Department

Author: Skylar Bayer

I only have 2000 words, so I’ll try to be as brief as possible.

People, especially those in graduate degree programs, often experience a period of time where they begin to question if they’re on the right path or not. As graduate students, we often go through at least one existential crisis a semester, especially those who don’t have kids, marriages, or any real commitments other than their work.  I speak for myself here, but I know some of you are nodding your heads while reading this right now.

I went through one of these periods this past year where nothing seemed to work. A failed relationship, a big move from one relatively remote place to another, I couldn’t seem to do anything right in the field and the lab (according to myself, not necessarily others), and the whole world seemed to be collapsing in on itself, especially my health.

This feeling of impending doom and illness literally struck my attention during a party where, let’s say, a PVC pipe that was affixed to a so-called “dance-cage” ended up smacking me right in the face and I spent the rest of the evening with a bag of frozen peas on the bridge of my nose in the kitchen. The next day, the unrelenting exhaustion took over and my heart seemed to be trying to tell me that something was not right.

I was always tired. I would sleep 12 hours a day and still no amount of rest would take away the feeling that I was on the verge of a very large case of the flu. My heart was jamming to strange arrhythmic beats that scared the crap out of me. Everything felt wrong. Was this the end? I started thinking maybe it was, and I’d just had a good run of it (dramatic, I know). Something was wrong. I was terrified and nothing seemed to be wrong with me, as far as the doctors could tell. Perhaps I was just stressed? No, no, it was not just that.

Finally, after a series of cardiology tests, I got a phone call the night before Thanksgiving informing me that in my sleep, during a 24-hour recording of my heart, I had gone into 36-beats of ventricular tachycardia. That might sound like gobbledygook to most but it means this – I was probably on my way to heart failure in my sleep that night. And the scariest part – it didn’t even wake me up.  I’m 25 years old.

So, I spent five days waiting in the hospital until my cardiac catheterization that included an electrical study on my heart. Five days of anticipation and thankfully a lot of family and friends and House. The study revealed a few things:

1) I require an unusually large amount of drugs to forget things (I have very vivid memories of being defibrillated – among other things – and let me tell you, being kicked in the chest is pretty much the equivalent of having electricity shot through your chest).

2) I have polymorphic arrhythmia.

What does that mean?

Well, it means I have weird electricity in my heart. It can screw things up at anytime.

Do they know where it came from? No.

Do they know how to fix it? Not yet.

Does it end my career as a scientific diver? Certainly does!

What’s the solution? Pacemaker/ICD insertion/surgery. However, just on a monitoring/safety net setting until I experience a bad rhythm I can’t get out of on my own. 

I dreaded the thought of all the work I would have to make up and the disappointment I would give my advisor now that I couldn’t be a diver anymore. But you know what? My department, my professors, my advisor and lab mates were far more supportive and concerned than I could ever hope or imagine. One of my professors, who just retired, told me he would keep the information I told him of strictest confidence and that he knew lots of people with pacemakers. Of course he did, I thought, he’s on that end of the lifecycle. But it made me smile. It also made me smile that he would keep my information in confidence while I was reaching out to the whole world on my Facebook feed.

Skipping my stories of relentlessly teasing doctors (Anyone else want to feel me up?), being shocked with pacemaker tests (Can you feel this? How about this? What about this?), back talking to the doctors during my surgery (Does this feel funny? Just as funny as everything else has felt this past hour!), pretending to propose to my surgeon (Here I was going to propose to you and then you had to screw with the pacing of my heart, har har har), having another unexpected surgery (luckily a benign lump removed from my breast, too bad the cardiologists hadn’t caught that in my chest examination) and coming off drugs (Oy…), we flash forward to my recovery period when I was laying spread-eagle on my back with a pillow under my side that now has a pacemaker, wincing in pain and annoyance of my craptastic painkillers. The phone rang.

The phone call was from the Associate Director of the School of Marine Sciences. He wanted to know what happened because he’d heard some from my advisor, but he wanted to hear straight from the source and the whole story at that.

So, I told him the whole thing. I told him about my three surgeries in a week, how I felt about everything. Everything. He listened to me for at least half an hour and was so genuinely happy that I was doing OK and recovering. He told me to not rush back to school, to not worry about my incompletes for the semester right now, and to just to get better. He even made sure my reimbursement for traveling between campuses was in the mail to me. He, and everyone in the whole department, were all wonderful with me. I don’t think I’ve even met most of them in person yet; this was all over the phone and e-mail.

Now, this seems like it should be expected of your department, but regardless, I was so appreciative to have people that I hardly knew helping me out and rooting for my team. My advisor was wonderful, too, although I waited till I was off the hard drugs to talk to him. I was nervous that I was a disappointment to him and the lab and he assured me that was not the case. He said (along with a few others, including our DSO) that he had no idea what he would do nor how he would feel if he was told that his diving career was over (personally, I wept for three hours.) I said, Well, it’s hard. And it was and it still is.

I got notes from all the undergrads that I met during the dive class in the fall. My friend’s family wrote me a note that included their dog’s signature. I had never felt so much love and support from a group of people I’d known for less than six months.

I’m not sure what happened during that experience, maybe I just needed a spa treatment at the hospital and a new hold on life, but suddenly everything seemed to make sense again. I guess it took a crisis of mortality at the tender age of 25 to get on track again. The goal of completing my Ph.D. seemed to make sense to me again. It’s something I wanted from this university, this lab, in this field of research.

It’s funny how your physical health affects your mental health. That may seem really obvious, but sometimes it takes a lot to really see what’s going on with your body. I hope that even though I may stray again in the future, it will not be accompanied by the sense of impending doom I had this fall. However, I will say it was fun being the celebrity case on the cardiology floor of a children’s hospital.  Like an episode of House, no one seemed to know what was wrong with me, really, nor how to fix it. I also was very good at poking fun of interns and med students, so I may’ve won a few points with the residents that way. I made sure that the doctors, nurses and even the construction workers (see: the sign I posted in my window, below), would never forget how I used humor to get through my stay there. And I will never forget the help of them, my parents, friends and my department at the University of Maine.

Have a Heart
The sign I made when I had pre-surgery jitters. I posted it in my hospital window and no, I don’t think any construction workers took their shirts off (it’s a children’s hospital!) But, I like to think at least one of them laughed. It made the nurses laugh.

5 thoughts on “The Heartfelt kindness of my Department

  1. Hey Skylar,

    This is very inspiring! I was always curious how you dealt with it all… thanks for sharing and keep writing!

  2. Dear Skylar,
    a few decades back, in the department where I did my PhD, there was a field geologist who rolled his 4WD in the outback, broke his neck, and became quadriplegic. He ended up doing an analytical PhD instead, since he could still operate the control computers with a pen held in his teeth.

    I didn’t actually hear about this story when I was a student. It was a few years later, when I was researching the sediment transport around the dry interior of Australia, .when I asked some scientific questions about some papers of his that I’d been reading to his advisor. As it turns out, this guy’s work was still the best treatment of the field.

    Anyway, the point is this. While health problems can be serious, the good news is that the science itself doesn’t care. If you do good work and get it published, it doesn’t matter if you are pacemakered, on chemo, or mangled in a car crash. It will still stand up.

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