Column: At a check-up with my cardiologist, I got a crash course on how to survive

It was in the middle of the night when my racing heart woke me up. I took a deep breath and tried to relax.

Abnormal heart rhythms are nothing new to me, so I didn’t panic when this happened late last year. But the extended erratic strikes are getting my attention, because about 10 years ago, I got into it Cardiac arrest After knee surgery and had to be resuscitated by a nurse.

Eventually, I fell back to sleep, and in the morning I activated a device that read my pacemaker and sent the data to my cardiologist. She quickly made the diagnosis, changed my meds and the race was off.

In addition to the device that reads a pacemaker, I have a wristwatch that can take an EKG in 30 seconds and upload it to my smartphone, so I can send the result to my doctor.

California is about to be hit by the wave of an aging population, and Steve Lopez is riding it. His new column will focus on the blessings and burdens of growing old – and how some people are challenging the stigma attached to getting older.

These and other devices designed to monitor various health problems are already in use or under development. So much so that a story just published by Kaiser Health News Asking the question: “Will your smartphone be the next doctor’s office?”

The short answer is no. Net to date anyway, with so many unanswered questions about accuracy, privacy, cybersecurity, FDA approval, insurance coverage, marketing good health, and fair access to costly devices. And technology can be a glitch and a headache, and sometimes it raises blood pressure instead of lowering it.

But beyond the challenges and risks, there is great potential in technology that gives patients a greater role in monitoring their own health and gives clinicians another tool to better manage patients.

As this happened, I had a regular check-up with cardiologist, Dr. Leslie Saxon, on Tuesday, and she agreed in advance to give me refresher courses on the benefits and challenges of medical technology, and what people should know about the causes and treatment of cardiac arrest. The recent collapse of Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin and the death of Lisa Marie Presley led to cardiac arrest.

Saxon’s assistant placed a wand-like sensor over my pacemaker and did a study reading what my heart had been like for the past few months. Every little whirlwind is recorded, helping Saxon determine the pace, type, and duration of the irregular rhythms. Saxon made me draw deep breaths while she listened with a stethoscope, and as she studied my heart, I picked her brain.

A doctor puts a stethoscope on a patient

Saxon has been Lopez’s cardiologist since he went into cardiac arrest 10 years ago and was resuscitated.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

Saxon, who works as physicians at Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California, is a professor, clinical researcher and executive director of USC body computing center, whose mission is to develop ways in which technology can “make health care more personal, affordable, and accessible to all.” In other words, she was the perfect person to answer my questions.

Saxon told me that about a year and a half ago, she was on a flight to Los Angeles that had just left North Carolina when a woman near her collapsed.

“She’s not conscious, but I can feel a weak pulse,” Saxon said, remembering the emergency.

Close up of the Apple Watch on a person's wrist

Lopez checks out his Apple Watch, which has health monitoring features.

(Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times)

The doctor removed her Apple Watch, placed it on the unconscious woman’s wrist, and placed the woman’s finger on the small part that was detecting heart function. (It’s the process I use when I have an arrhythmia.) The reading from Saxon’s watch went to her phone, and she knew exactly what was going on.

“I see she’s in this rhythm called atrial fibrillation,” said Saxon, who asked a flight attendant for saline from the plane’s medical supply kit. Saxon began an intravenous injection, and the diabetic woman quickly recovered. “I just stayed with her, and she’s fine, and we took her to California and we didn’t have to divert the plane.”

Of course, crashing next to the cardiologist isn’t something you can plan ahead. But Saxon’s story illustrates the value of having the ability to take an EKG if you’re not feeling well. However, you have to hope that your doctor or assistant sees the reading quickly.

There is also the larger societal question of what to do for those who cannot afford expensive electronic gadgets or who do not have access to quality health care.

There are no easy short-term answers when it comes to the health care system’s decades-old inefficiencies. But Saxon believes it is possible to transform “traditional medicine” and make more use of available technology for the benefit of all, while simultaneously addressing issues of data privacy and commercial profitability.

“If we’re really going to get the results that we want, we need to get to the disease early and get patients involved in their care and understanding, so we have to do things that aren’t traditional,” she said, pointing to her watch, which cost about $1,000. (Mine cost less than half that amount.)

“We have to realize,” said Saxon, “it’s cheaper to buy a $1,000 watch and an iPhone with a data plan than a single emergency visit.”

Excellent point, but neither logic nor improved health outcomes drive health care policy making.

Saxon, who is a healthy swimmer, gave another example of how people use technology to manage their health. She is not diabetic, but has been wearing a continuous glucose monitoring patch to study her body’s response to certain foods.

Upon eating the bagel and cream cheese, for example, her glucose level rose to levels that surprised her.

“This increases my risk of developing diabetes by 5% to 10%,” she said. “I always liked this kind of food, right? But when I saw what it was doing to me, I didn’t crave it anymore.”

Saxon became my cardiologist after my brief visit to the other side in 2012 right after knee replacement surgery. I was quickly resuscitated post-op, and Saxon said my cardiac arrest may have been caused by a combination of factors related to pain, anesthesia, and long-standing heart rhythm problems.

In broad terms, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem and a heart attack is a health problem, but the two are often linked.

“As you get older, your risk of cardiovascular disease increases, and the majority of cardiac arrests are due to a heart attack,” Saxon said. “So one of the things you can do as you get older is get screened for your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol — and get a stress test if needed. … You’ll care a lot about your risk, and you can rule out your bad event for years and years.”

Then Saxon said, there is the obvious. Exercise, maintain a healthy diet, limit alcohol, don’t smoke, and watch your weight.

Cardiac arrest can occur at any age, and if you are with someone who is declining, what should you do?

Well, we’re not doctors, so we can’t diagnose what caused the meltdown. But we can make sure someone calls 911, and then we make sure the person’s airways are clear and start chest compressions. If the problem is cardiac arrest, CPR can push the blood through the body and keep the person alive until professional help and defibrillators arrive.

According to the American Heart Assn. Cardiac arrest was a factor in more than 370,000 deaths in the United States in 2019, but Saxon said doing the right thing in the first few minutes could save a life. Anyone can learn the basics of CPR. You can check redcross.orgThe American Heart Association also has a lot of good information in their website

For my examination, Saxon ordered a stress test for me, just to stay on top of things. But overall, she said, I’m relatively healthy, so this doesn’t count as my last column at the Golden State.

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