When I Discovered What POTS, Astronauts and I Have in Common
When I was younger, the first thing I ever wanted to be was a taxi. No, not the taxi cab driver, but the actual taxi cab. The vehicle. I blame my mom because she always told me I could be anything I ever wanted to be — which I guess included inanimate objects.
I grew up a little and then set my sights on the White House. First Woman President was my next goal and would last until I was in junior high. Obviously wanting to be a cab was just a stepping stone to this, right? I remember going to school for Career Day in third grade dressed in a blue dress, red, white and blue pearls, and my Papoo’s briefcase with a paper sign on the side that read “Alexandra Rodriguez, First Woman President of the United States.” Riding the bus to school that morning, one of my classmates was dressed as a painter. He promised to paint the White House blue for me when the time came.
For a brief moment in fourth grade, I wanted to be an astronaut. This was fueled by my first year in our school’s gifted and talented program. Once or twice a week, some of my classmates and I were taken out of our regular classes, and we took additional classes on a language and other topics. Eventually we would take a trip in the spring with all of the kids from our corporation out of state for extra learning.
In fourth grade, we began studying Spanish and learning about NASA and our space program. We had to pick a person who had an impact on our view and understanding of space for our presentations. I chose John Glenn and here is an embarrassing picture of me giving my speech for a grade.
For our trip that year, we traveled down to Huntsville, Alabama — home of Space Camp. This was probably one of my best experiences of my life — definitely top 10. We spent the months before with a crew manifesto and working through different scenarios for our space flight in the spring. We each had a role as one of the crew members and were responsible for different pieces of information for our mission preparation and our mission down at the camp. We spent time in mission control, flight simulators, and experienced weightlessness while trying to “fix” a piece of our spacecraft. We even got to see a portion of the International Space Station before it was sent up.
It was during this trip that I realized I could not be an astronaut. On one of the simulators, I made myself feel so sick from the g-force that I vowed never to experience that again. My brief dream to follow in John Glenn’s footsteps and ask for a glass of sweet tea after returning to earth was gone.
Fast-forward to January 2016. I’m sitting in my third appointment in two days to help diagnose the severity of my postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). (How ironic that not only can I not handle the g-forces in a simulator, but the g-force here on Earth.) I have just completed my cardiac stress test consisting of having somewhere around 15 electrodes stuck all over my chest (after being sandpapered down for them to stick) and walking on a treadmill with increasing speed and incline for 15 minutes. I lasted longer than I expected. I was exhausted, dizzy, wobbly, and just ready to finally have some news.
Dr. B walks in and lays out my first real plan on the road to a new normal. I will begin a cardiac rehab plan to get my muscle tone and heart in a better place. My heart rate has to been in a specific range each week and I have to measure my energy in the watts my equipment is using. Dr. B warned me that most people do not feel or see any major differences in how they fell for about two months, but he said that about 90 percent of patients do see a difference afterwards. He also warned that I could start feeling like I could do more, but I needed to stick to the specific regimen or else I will do too much and push my body back further.
I was wheeled out of the office feeling excited for the future when Dr. B said, “Oh, by the way, if you want to impress your students [I’m a teacher], tell them that the rehab plan you have is the same one the astronauts use when they get back from space.”
“Oh yes, all astronauts basically have [symptoms similar to] POTS when they return because their body isn’t used to gravity. They exhibit similar symptoms you have and are going through the same rehab plan you’re going to start. Yours is just specifically designed for your heart and body.”
You guys, I’m an astronaut! My fourth grade dream is coming true!
This revelation comes on the heels of Mark Kelly’s return from his year in space. It’s odd to think I have such a parallel life for a period of time with him and so many of his counterparts. They give up a major portion of their lives to live in space, and then have to reacclimatize to living on Earth again. I, too, have given up a major portion of my life to becoming healthier (although not by choice). Only a select few see the world as an astronaut sees it, and I’d like to believe I’m in that elite group.
Accepting my life as an unofficial astronaut has given me a new motivation to continue my rehab, and to continue exploring options of recovery. There have been many days where I do not feel like getting up, strapping on my heart rate monitor, making sure I drink a specific amount of electrolytes, and hop on the bike to make myself exacerbate my symptoms. Who would enjoy that? But as I look back at how far I’ve come in the past few months, I am so proud that I have persevered in my “training.” I’m pushing my body to my new limits to get to a place where I can still accomplish the goals I have given myself. I did just as Mark Kelly said: “You really decide that you’re going to put the time in and work really hard to get to the point where you’re ready.” I’m ready to live this new life, even with all its challenges, and I have my fellow astronauts to thank.
Editor’s note: Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.
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