How a workout injury revealed my rare heart condition and saved my life
Hello! I’m Matt Howerton. I’m a Texan, a television news reporter and a unicorn. That’s an odd introduction, right? But it’s true. And I promise, there’s a good story behind it all—one that begins with me hitting the gym to try and look good and ends with me controlling a rare heart condition that is found in fewer than 20,000 people in the United States every year.
But back to me trying to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or some smaller and weaker version of him. I’ve always cared a lot about how I look. Call it arrogance. Call it narcissism. Call it both.
Regardless, one weekend in the summer of 2021, I decided to take my nephews to the gym with me to further enhance my fitness journey and, more importantly, to show off. After all, what uncle doesn’t want to be depicted as a strong, impenetrable force that could lift a car off a group of trapped schoolchildren?
An injury leads to an unexpected diagnosis
Both of my nephews are learning to lift weights in football, so they suggested we back-squat, which can be a bastion of pride in the gym depending on how much weight you can load up onto a bar. Uncle Matt can do 315 lbs. for three reps. At least, that’s the most I’ve ever done.
So, I did what I love to do: show off to get attention. However, on the second rep down I felt an incredibly uncomfortable piercing feeling in my groin. Much ouch—such pain. I pushed through the discomfort and finished the set. Huzzah! But I felt like I had a hernia. Well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own self-obsession.
I booked an appointment with my family physician. It had been some time since I had a thorough checkup. I’m a television reporter. I’ve got news to do, people! Since it had been a while, I decided to get everything looked at: blood work, my injury, an EKG, everything. Here’s the kicker—I had never had an EKG before.
The doc looked at my groin and told me to suck it up, that I don’t have a hernia and to just stay away from leg exercises for a bit.
Then he said, “But I do have a unicorn in my office today.”
I looked around sheepishly. “Me?”
“Yes, you have Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome—a rare heart condition—and you’re going to need to see a cardiologist. Don’t worry though. It’s not something to panic over.”
Dealing with a surprise—and rare—diagnosis
So naturally, I panicked.
A lot of internet searching and talking with my friends who are physicians ensued. I learned that Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, or WPW, means, in simple terms, that you have an additional electric pathway in your heart. Everybody is supposed to have just one. But I have another doorway for signals to travel through, telling my heart to beat outside of normal sinus rhythm.
People with WPW often experience supraventricular tachycardia, which means your heart rate can elevate to an abnormal pace. I’ve experienced that before. Many times. Only during strenuous exercise, though. My heartrate during a Crossfit class once went up to 220 on my Apple watch. That’s. Not. Normal.
The good news: there was a way to fix all of this via cardiac ablation. The bad news? If I didn’t do it, I risked going into cardiac arrest. That’s because WPW can make your heart ‘short-circuit’ with that extra pathway.
I booked a consult with Dr. Manish Assar at Baylor Scott & White Heart and Vascular Hospital – Dallas. He’s a cardiac electrophysiologist. I was told by my doctor friends that’s just another word for ‘super-nerdy cardiologist.’
Dr. Assar assured me that ablation would be quick and easy, and I’d be out of the hospital within hours of my procedure. If you don’t know what an ablation is, it’s a really cool procedure in which a guy like Dr. Assar maneuvers a catheter through your veins or arteries to freeze or burn the extra pathway in a heart with WPW.
Championing heart health
So, in late January 2022, I started the year off with a bang and had the ablation.
It was a success! My heart is in much healthier condition today than it was before the ablation. I can work out as hard as I want now and not have to worry about the risk of, well, dying. Dr. Assar and everybody at Baylor Scott & White was so helpful, and they remain in constant contact with me about checkups (that I should schedule soon!).
Anyway, the point of sharing my story—all the extraneous info aside—is simply to champion knowing your body and listening to it if something doesn’t feel right.
Over-communicate with health professionals about anything weird you might be feeling. And get the ole’ blood-filled meat sack looked at from time to time!
When was the last time you had your heart checked? Find a heart specialist today.
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