That Time I Fell Down the Stairs and Then Passed Out
I always imagined that the first time I passed out, or my first ambulance ride, or my first trip to the Emergency Room, would all have something to do with my diabetes. Because other than my dysfunctional pancreas, I’m actually a very healthy person.
But that was not to be the case.
Every afternoon, like clockwork, I take a trip downstairs to check the mail. I’m getting married, you see, and waiting for all the RSVPs to arrive, so the mail is a very important part of my day. I’m like a kid waiting for school to get out. I just eye the clock until around 1:30, when I think it’s safe to go look. Sometimes the mail is slow, and I make another trip or two, once at 2:00 and another at 2:30. By 2:30, the mail is almost always here.
Yesterday was a cold, cloudy day, but because of my weight loss, my pants don’t really fit anymore. Even though I didn’t have any plans to go out, I put on a skirt and a black pair of tights. Around 1:30, I decided to go downstairs and check the mail. I rarely wear shoes, but I always have my feet covered, either in my slipper socks or in another pair of socks. Barely out the door and I made the mistake of not walking slowly in my stockings. I have almost slipped once before, but I guess my tights were a little slicker than usual and instead of just losing my footing, I fell backwards and slid down a short flight of stairs (my apartment’s staircase has two short flights of stairs between floors). I probably slid down three, maybe four, steps.
When I got up, my first reaction was of course, “Owww!” And then I contemplated going back upstairs, but I thought, no, I’ll go get the mail and then come back upstairs.
I kept walking down the stairs, holding onto the railing for dear life. By the time I got to the second floor (I live on the 4th), I felt woozy and a bit sick to my stomach. I thought maybe the wind had been knocked out of me or maybe I just felt sick from the pain. It occurred to me to stop, but dammit, I had come this far and I wanted to get the mail!
When I got to the mailboxes (which are inside my building, by the front door), I saw two women, an old woman and her daughter, walking up the sidewalk outside. I opened the mailbox and saw that the mail had indeed come.
The next thing I know, the young woman is holding onto me, asking, “Are you OK?” And the old woman was saying something like “Is it your sugar?” I don’t know why she asked that, because I never told her that I have diabetes.
My first thought was “Where did you come from? I didn’t see you open the door.” My second thought was, “No, it is not my sugar, but how am I standing so far away from the mailboxes?”
Luckily, the timing was such that I blacked out while the women were opening the door and then I fainted onto the women as they came into the building, and not into the wall. Well, luckily for me, I guess. Not sure if I would enjoy having a grown woman fall onto me…
“You should sit down,” said the old woman.
“I think I fainted,” I said, struggling to stay up right as I went over to the staircase. The blood had rushed from my brain and the world was muffled. I could barely hear what the women were saying to me, although they kept asking me what happened. “I fell down the stairs…”
“You fell down these stairs and then fainted?” the old woman asked.
“No, the ones upstairs,” I said, gesturing to the staircase.
As I sat on the last flight of stairs, the blood finally came back to my head and I could hear and think again.
Soon, a couple police officers were at the building, and they asked me some questions. I told them I had diabetes. Or maybe someone else told them. I had my insulin pump exposed and I can’t remember if they saw it and knew what it was or if I told them. The police asked if I knew what my blood sugar was, but I told him I had tested this morning but hadn’t test again for lunch. I told them that I was positive it wasn’t. I didn’t feel the slightest bit shaky. The young woman took my keys and brought down my purse and shoes, along with my glucose meter, and when I tested, I was 189 mg/dl. Totally fine.
I explained how I fell down the stairs but I was pretty sure I didn’t hit my head. I didn’t remember hitting my head and my head didn’t hurt. My back and my tailbone hurt, but my head was fine.
Soon the paramedics arrived, and they asked me the same questions. The took me on the stretcher to the ambulance, where one EMT checked my pulse while the other took my vitals. The EMT told me that my heart rate was very, very low.
Normal heart rate is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Mine was half that, fluctuating between 35 beats and 45 beats per minute. They told me that probably had something to do with why I fainted, but they didn’t know if the low heart rate had anything to do with why I slipped to begin with. I didn’t think so, but they decided to take me to the hospital just in case.
On our way there, I could feel how low my heart rate was. I was sleepy and waves of nausea would pass over me. I also checked my own pulse on my neck. Usually, it’s is very consistent.
This time, I could barely feel it and when I did, it was more like this:
It was a little unnerving. The EMT started an IV and dosed me with a drug to get my heart rate up, but it took awhile to set in. While we were driving, I also need an oxygen mask because I thought I was going to pass out again.
My time in the emergency room was fairly uneventful. I repeated the story again. The nurse took a few vials of blood. Another nurse did an EKG, just to make sure there wasn’t anything wrong with my heart.
There wasn’t. I was fine. Finally, the emergency room doctor on call came in to explain what happened.
Apparently, when a person suffers severe pain, such as falling or breaking a bone, the trauma of the pain can cause the heart rate to drop. My heart rate is naturally on the low side of normal. This isn’t a bad thing. Actually, everyone has always said that I have the heart of an athlete, without actually being an athlete. My heart is just very efficient. However, when the heart rate drops, it can drop to the point where you can pass out. The technical term for what happened to me is Vasovagal syncope, which is a biological reflex when the heart rate drops so low that blood pressure falls and causes fainting. Other causes, besides extreme pain, is sudden fear or emotional stress (which is why people who are shocked sometimes faint), overexertion, or suddenly standing upright.
The ironic thing is that I had something similar happen to me when I was 9 years old. I had gone on a long bike ride during the summer but didn’t bring any water with me (because I was young and stupid). When I was done, I got off my bike and got very dizzy and the world got muffled. My dad told me to lie down on the ground and bend my knees. Within a few minutes I was fine, though I felt tired and a bit nauseated for the rest of the afternoon.
Of course, if I had actually remembered this previous episode and had just stopped and lied down on the landing in the apartment when I thought to myself, “I think I should sit down,” none of this would have happened. I wouldn’t have wasted three hours in the emergency room on nothing.
But I didn’t remember and I didn’t know any better at the time. The old woman in my building didn’t know about vasovagal syncope, and the EMTs apparently didn’t know either (or they are trained to be on the safe side). It very well could have been something else, and I suppose it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
I suppose the moral of the story is to listen to what your body is telling you and stop when you feel like you need to stop. Now the only thing wrong with me is a bruised tailbone and a sprained lower back. So, yeah, my “penciled in” workouts will be on hold for a few days.
And you want to know the worst thing? After Erik and I got home from the hospital and I finally picked up the mail, we only had one RSVP in our mailbox. And it was a No.
I passed out for nothing.