“I’m an active duty service member for the last 14 years. I enlisted at the end of my junior year of high school in 2004. I’ve served with the amazing 101st Airborne Division and as an elite Night Stalker. I worked MEDEVAC over two combat tours, seeing the worst combat had to offer on a daily basis. I’ve done 2 tours in Korea, 4 to Afghanistan, and been around the world. But February 24th, 2018, my habits caught up to me.
Over my numerous deployments, energy drinks were a staple… For everybody. My last deployment in 2015 they got fewer on hand, so when they were stocked in the chow halls, I pilfered it the best I could, cramming them into any available pocket space I had. Then drink them all within a 12-hour shift. I had no issues sleeping, either.
But this past February, I woke up at 5 a.m. to get ready for our first formation of the day and do some physical training. I felt like I had a chest cold coming on, but I ignored it. There was no pain, so I worked out, got home, took my 120-degree shower and I felt so much worse. I got light headed, I was dizzy. I got dressed and went to work. I sat at my desk working, struggling to focus, and around noon I got up from my desk to go to the restroom and I nearly fainted. I didn’t feel well at all. And life in the military, there is no ‘calling in sick.’ You have to suck it up or convince the doc you’re dying and they’ll write you a quarters slip. I call my buddy who’s the unit medic. I ask if he can check my vitals and told him how I’ve been feeling. He said, ‘let me pick you up and take you to the ER. If you come to the clinic like that, that’s what we would do anyways.’
I get to the ER and as I’m checking in, the lady at the admit desk wants to get my pulse. The lady sticks the pulse ox on my finger and it can’t get a reading. So she sticks a hot pad on my hand because she believes my hand is too cold. My hands are on fire and they still can’t get a reading, so she has me go in for an EKG. I have 4 nurses. One is taking my shirt off, one is putting it back on, one is putting the stickers and wires on me, and the fourth is trying to get my name and date of birth. All of a sudden one shouts, ‘Oh my God, he’s in AFib,’ and all 4 hustle out the door. I text my buddy and ask him what AFib was. He said it was fine, my heart isn’t in a normal rhythm, and it’s treatable with medicine. Awesome. They admit me and after my wife stops in to check on me, sees I’m doing okay, she had to finish up one last errand with her mom. The doc tells me that the entire cardiology ward is out of town, I’ll stay in ICU overnight for observation, and they will cardiovert me the next morning. Men, don’t text your wife, ‘I’m going to ICU’ without backstory or reassurance that you’re not dying. That was my exact text to my wife and she has a mild panic attack, calls me asking if I’m ok, and I didn’t have a clue why she’s upset.
I stay overnight and at 4 a.m. my nurse comes in to draw labs. After she wakes me up, I felt my skin boiling, drenched in sweat, my bowels start to give out. I try pulling my IV out of my arm because I have to poop really bad. My wife was in the bathroom at the time and she comes out after hearing the commotion and sees the nurse laying on top of me, yelling ‘CODE BLUE,’ pulling on the emergency string on the wall. I cannot imagine what’s going on in her mind. I remember her grabbing my hand and repeatedly saying ‘baby, no!’ It breaks my heart to think back on it. But next thing I know I see the light. I thought this was it. I see a bright white light, I feel a calmness (I am a saved born-again Christian, by the way), and next thing I know I wake up and two doctors, a crash cart, and a worried nursing staff has occupied all available space in my room. I look at my wife. I hated scaring her like that.
The doctors kept talking back and forth and the only word I can get out of it was ‘bagel.’ ‘No, Mr. Wing, VAGEL. You had a vasovagal reaction. It’s the act of passing out. We gave you some epinephrine to adjust your heart rate where it belongs.’ That was when I learned that my heart had stopped beating for about 20 seconds. In all the chaos, it felt like forever. Later that day I took an echo cardiogram and cardioversion without any incident. But since that moment, I haven’t felt like my old self. Being a gym junkie prior to this, now the gym is a daunting task. I feel my heart race. I don’t feel like I can keep up with these young bucks anymore. I want to be the Sergeant Major of the Army, but now I’m hoping I can limp to the finish line and retire at 20. My chain of command took me out of my old section and gave me a low stress job so I can focus on getting back on my feet. I’m a Night Stalker, I’m not used to being so idle at work. I’ve gone back and forth from hospitals doing testing. I’m now on a CPAP machine after a sleep study. Half of AFib patients also have sleep apnea. Leading up to it, I was drinking two 20oz cans of energy drinks a day.
Soldiers, we expect to be able to rip it all night or to get wings to last through 24 hour duties. It’s become a substance abuse issue that nobody thinks about until the damage is done. My heart continues to go in and out of AFib, sometimes I can feel it and others it’s unnoticed. Walking upstairs to my kids’ room kicks my butt. I’ve gone from fit for duty to now wondering how long until the Army says I can’t hack it anymore. I don’t want to be known as the guy that gets somebody killed because I can’t carry my own weight plus someone else’s, in the event that I have to.
Folks, I’m 32 years old. I’m too young to be on calcium channel blockers, aspirin, blood thinners, heart rate control… If I go into sustained AFib again, and I need to be shocked again, I go on stronger medication and my career is over and I’m medically discharged. It’s not worth it in the culture we have. We can do staff duty, work 24 hours, and win wars without energy drinks. We’ve done it for generations. We need to curb it. I’m not drinking anymore. The damage has already been done. I don’t want to put my wife through this again. I have to eventually walk my daughter’s down the aisle. I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor. I have seen the ripple effect of losing friends in combat and to their own demons. I don’t want to let something as dumb as energy drinks do that to my family. I can work through this, so I can hopefully prevent you from walking the same walk.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Ben Wing of Texas. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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