Young adult cardiac patient shares tips for ‘going it alone’ in the hospital

arrhythmia cardiac therapy dog with heart patient
Zach with Sam the “Pawprints” dog

Zachary Harper, 23, a young adult living with congenital heart disease, receives care at the Boston Children’s Hospital Heart Center.

I was recently admitted to Boston Children’s Hospital. Though I am no stranger to these visits, they are still draining — both physically and mentally.

You see, seven years ago, when I was 16, I went into sudden cardiac arrest at school. After an array of tests, my doctors concluded that a virus had attacked my heart. But five years later, another event led to a new diagnosis: arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, or ARVC, a rare genetic disease that causes an abnormal heart beat.  Treatment for this disease consists of medication and an Internal Cardiac Defibrillator (ICD).

An ICD is similar to a pacemaker and is implanted in the chest, where it monitors a patient’s heartbeat. When it senses an arrhythmia, the defibrillator sends a precise electrical pulse to the heart to restore normal rhythm.

For two years, I didn’t have any serious problems, but recently I experienced symptoms of cardiac arrest again.  My dad decided we were going to the hospital just to be safe.  While there, my heart started to go into small, slow bursts of ventricular tachycardia. Nothing too fast — it wasn’t to the point where my device had to shock me — but it was enough to really stress a person out!

As I’m now 23 years old, my parents and I felt I could manage being in the hospital alone for what we thought would just be a night or two. But as time went by, it seemed these cardiac events were happening a little too frequently, and my doctors were concerned.  The arrhythmias seemed to happen mostly at night, when I was alone, and that started to take a toll on my anxiety.

Thankfully, I did have a wonderful team of nurses and doctors who were there for my entire stay. This is true for all of my visits to the Heart Center.

cardiac arrhythmia patient young adult heart disease
Zach with his girlfriend, Caitlin

Coping tips and canine company

My nurses stayed with me when I would start to have anxiety attacks, making sure I was calmed down and feeling well before they would leave.  There were some times when it was tough just sitting in there, not knowing when I’d be allowed to leave or why everything was happening, and this being my first stay at the hospital alone didn’t make it much easier.  But the awesome nursing staff made a huge difference.

It’s OK to call home or reach out to a friend if you are feeling lonely.

And Sam, the Pawprints aid dog, was amazing! I’m a dog person, and since I didn’t have my own pup there to calm me down, it was super nice having a little time with Sam to help take my mind off of things.

Anytime you have to stay in the hospital, it’s really tough. But at Boston’s Children’s, they do their absolute best to bring you some comfort and peace while you’re there.

To other young adults, staying in the hospital alone for the first time (or second or third) I would say: it’s OK to be worried or nervous. Remember, you’re at the best possible place you could be. And, it is OK to call home or reach out to a friend if you are feeling lonely. You’re never too old for that, and the loved one on the other end will likely get as much comfort as you will.

Learn more about the Heart Center at Boston Children’s Hospital.