heat stroke

What’s Wrong with Me

“Do you do Zumba, too?”

I’ll bet I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times, no joke. You see, my wife Sarah is a fitness instructor. Actually, she’s not just a fitness instructor. She’s a kick-butt fitness instructor. Take a look at some of her videos on YouTube and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. As a result, I’ve heard the aforementioned question on more than a few occasions.

If you think about it, it’s an odd question, because I’m sure the reverse very rarely happens. I don’t think anyone ever asks her if she edits audio, doodles caricatures, writes comedy reviews, or interviews people for a podcast. If I meet someone who works at Michael’s, I don’t ask her husband if he works in a craft shop, too, and if I meet a mechanic….well, you get my point. It’s just a little weird to me.

Be assured, I’m never offended when I’m asked if I also do Zumba, but the query has been posed to me so many times, it’s just kind of taken me by surprise. There are two answers to that question: the short one and the long one. I always give the short one, which is to say I smile, chuckle, and reply, “No, I don’t like to pass out in public.” It usually gets a laugh and then it’s on from there. If only they knew that the short answer isn’t just a joke but exactly what would happen.

This post is the long answer.

There’s something wrong with me (insert joke here). I don’t know what it is and apparently neither do the doctors I’ve gone to see. To put it simply, when I move around so much that I sweat, I also get really close to passing out. I have no idea why and it’s plagued me since I was in my late teens, early 20s. I run around, I get hot, then I get dizzy, then I either need to run my head under water or else it’s lights out. Weird, huh?

My very first memory of thinking something was up (and it didn’t actually occur to me until years later while reading a blurb in Men’s Health) was as a teenager mowing the lawn in the summer. We had a huge lawn and I assume our riding mower was on the fritz because I was using the push mower. I recall being drenched in sweat and suddenly getting really woozy in the head. I stopped and stood there and just stared at the ground and watched it spin. I wanted to run to the five gallon bucket we used as our dog’s water bowl and submerge my head in it. That would feel great. I wanted to lay down in the grass and just sleep. That would feel even better.

About that time Dad came out of the house to get something from his truck and I asked him how someone knows if they have heat stroke. Assuming I was just trying to get out of mowing the lawn (something I totally would have tried to do, I’m sure), he replied, “You don’t have heat stroke.” Which really meant, “Mow the lawn, cry baby.”

And so I did. I didn’t pass out and I didn’t have any other dizzy spells. I just mowed the lawn without further incident.

I used to love playing outdoor volleyball. It was always a family reunion favorite and one day (a few years after the lawn mowing story) I noticed that after only one game, I got really dizzy. I had to sit out (literally) the rest of the games and just watch from the sidelines. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I figured it was just a really hot day when, in actuality, it probably wasn’t any warmer than an average humid summer day in Indiana.

And that’s just how things kind of progressed from there. If I was doing anything too active, I’d need to be careful, otherwise I’d get super-sweaty, light-headed and dizzy, I’d fall to all fours and just want to sleep.

I didn’t mention it to a doctor until around the year 2000 because, to be honest, that’s the first time I had medical insurance. During a routine examination I mentioned it to my family doctor and his eyes lit up like he was about to gain Doctor Notoriety with a paper he would write about me. In actuality, he told me it sounded like an extremely rare heart condition and, when over-exerted, the symptoms are dizziness (check), the desire to dunk one’s head in water (check), and needing to put one’s head as close to the ground as possible (and check. That wonderful, alluring sleep).

I told him I had those symptoms and soon found myself at the local hospital wired up to a machine and on a treadmill for a stress test. Did you ever hear the one about the guy on the treadmill wired up for a stress test who actually couldn’t run long enough for them to get any readings? Well, now you have.

I don’t recall exactly how long I ran, but when they told me I didn’t last long enough, I remember feeling a little confused. It’s not like I only ran for 20 seconds and it was Game Over. How much info did they need? And how ancient are their machines that they learned nothing? I was standing on the side of the treadmill, dizzy and sweating like a maniac, and they could get nothing out of it.

After that, they attached a heart monitor of sorts to my body and told me to wear it for three days. They also told me not to do any running or strenuous physical activity. I tried to tell them the problem only happens when I do strenuous activity, but they assured me they knew what they were talking about. Not having any sort of medical degree, I conceded.

Three days passed and nothing happened. I didn’t sweat and I didn’t get dizzy. They unfastened the wires and monitoring device and, lo and behold, one week later called to tell me they didn’t see anything wrong.

I mean, I could have told you that.

So, basically, modern medicine shrugged its shoulders and said, “I dunno. Beats me.”

And that’s where I am today, 14 years later. I have no idea what’s wrong with me. All I know is I have to keep myself to one game of volleyball (and even then, I can’t go all out), I workout (carefully) at home to DVDs so if I have to get on my hands and knees or put my head in water I can (and, once in a while, just lie down on the floor and sleep where no one will see me), and I can’t do my wife’s Zumba class. She’s a little maniac and really goes to town and I can’t keep up. I want to, but I can’t. If I try…well, see the short answer at the beginning of this post.

Last year I was reading Men’s Health and I read a blurb on a study done about people who had suffered heat stroke at an early age and how, in a handful of cases, the symptoms stuck with the person whenever they engaged in physical activity (I wish I could find a link to the article. I looked, but nada. It wasn’t an article per se, just a little sidebar quickie).

In my head, that’s what I have. Did that day mowing the lawn do it? I don’t know. Is it something else? I don’t know, but it’s an answer that seems to fit and having that answer is a lot more comforting to me than admitting… I don’t know.

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I forgot to mention there is one activity I can do with no problem: Swimming. I can’t run for more than 15 minutes but I can literally swim all day long. And have. Maybe it’s because I’m already surrounded in water? Maybe it’s because I’m part fish. Who knows. But I’m super grateful I have that.