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Guest Blog: Summer Palpitations


Katherine Ellington is a medical student and writer. Her work has been featured in The New Physician magazine, at and she' blogs at' World House Medicine.

Early one Saturday morning, I was making my plans for the day. As I moved toward the kitchen, Mom's voice bellowed from the living room, 'The coffee is ready.'

Turning my head, I could see bright rays of sunshine making a path through the open front door.'  I followed my morning greeting with, 'Did you have breakfast?' Mom answered, 'Yes,' so I sat down with yogurt, a banana and cinnamon coffee in my favorite cup.

She came to the table, pulled her chair up close and said with half-hearted laughter, 'I keep feeling these flutters.'

'What have you been up to this morning?' I asked.

She said, 'Well, I ate cereal for breakfast and took my medication, then I rode my bike to the bank.' Now I'm getting ready to go grocery shopping, choir rehearsal and then to get my hair done, but I keep feeling these flutters.''  Just listening to her schedule made me uncomfortable. She had other unmentioned responsibilities, like caring for my grandmother and cooking dinner, but I wasn't ready to stir up an argument. Instead I said, 'Well, it's been a busy morning, so why don't you go back to the sofa and rest for awhile?'' 

My summer break from med school had provided us with new opportunities to share our lives and experiences. I talked about interesting findings in health and medicine while she shared more stories with me about her own life experiences. I learned to listen more attentively and I began to see her rage with the world of injustices and her strength in overcoming obstacles. At the same time, I noted the way she kept her vulnerabilities hidden'with myriad subtleties' as described in Paul Lawrence Dunbar's poem 'We Wear The Mask.' As she laid in the other room, we talked about a co-worker who'd died suddenly a few days ago. She paused for a moment, admitting her anguish.

A few weeks earlier, when we spoke about the New York City Health Department's no trans fat public awareness campaign, her question was, 'What's the big deal?'

As I grinned through a biochemistry lesson on lipid metabolism, she became irritated and puzzled. I made more progress when I talked to her about fries and partially-hydrogenated oils leading to weight gain and rising cholesterol levels, which may increase the risk of heart disease.' She got it, and began reading food labels more carefully and switched out the oils in the kitchen with healthier choices. But as she rested on the couch, I realized that reducing the stressors in her life might be harder than adjusting the contents of our pantry.

By late Saturday evening, I was sitting in front of the computer with the banter of young people outside my front bedroom window and a hint of barbeque in the air.' I heard rushing footsteps coming down the stairs, then a knock on my door.' In a shaky voice, Mom asked, 'What did you tell me to do about these palpitations?'' 

I asked, 'Have these continued from early this morning?'

She nodded. 'I'm too uncomfortable to lie down or sleep like this.'' 

I told her, 'You have to go the hospital.' I reached for the phone and dialed 911. She lamented that she didn't think her situation was that serious. I did. She urged me to take her blood pressure.' I did not.

The ambulance came in less than ten minutes. Her pulse was rapid, her blood pressure was abnormally high and the portable heart monitor gave a picture of irregularities. She was rushed to the hospital while I stayed behind with my grandmother. Grandma was now awake, upset by the ordeal and demanding answers by asking the same few questions repeatedly. 'Why did they have to take your mother to the hospital?'  What's wrong with her heart? How did that happen? She's too young to have heart trouble. They took your mother to the hospital? For what?''  It was a long night.

After an hour in the emergency room, mom was admitted to the hospital.'  Her pulse, blood pressure and heart rhythms returned to normal with medication.' She was released from the hospital after a few days with instructions to follow up with her primary care physician and with a referral to see a cardiologist.

That summer, I finished my first reading of our cardiovascular physiology packet with a more profound interest in the advances of science and medicine as well as the research related to health disparities. I had already learned first-hand that the prevalence of heart disease among black women is twice as high as for others.

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More Blog Posts by Katherine Ellington

author bio

Katherine Ellington is a medical student and writer. Her work has been featured in The New Physician magazine, at and she blogs at World House Medicine. This post is the second in a three-part series; read the first post here and the second here.

Tags for this article:
Medical Education   Katherine Ellington   Make Good Treatment Decisions   Patient Engagement  

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