Faint at heart?

I’ve always been a fainter, but only realized that just recently. ‘Fainting’ kind of has a wussy ring to it, an unsavory ‘bodice-tied-too-tightly’ whiff that just doesn’t go with my own carefully cultivated self-image.

Just in case you’re curious, my own self-image has notes of Kate Jackson, Chuck Norris, Dixie Carter and Margaret Thatcher, all very self-sufficient, sensible, dependable people. Oh, and Buttercup of The Power Puff Girls. Probably more than a little bit of her. So tight bodices and fainting doesn’t really go along with that composite image.

But if you’re gonna faint, you’re gonna faint, and only through lots of training and self-discipline can you avert that–IF you can avert it. Fainting, or syncope, or a vasovagal episode, is an involuntary bodily reaction most-commonly caused by a drop in blood pressure and heart rate, and the resulting drop in blood flow to the brain. You get pale, you get weak, and everything fades out for a little while. People can experience syncope that’s triggered by extreme emotional distress, or from an injury or blood loss, from dehydration, from an abrupt change in posture (like standing up too quickly), and it often needs no further examination, unless it’s caused by one of several medical conditions requiring treatment.

If you faint and you’re out for a long time, like days, that’s called a coma and that DOES require further medical treatment. That’s my helpful PSA for today: “If you’re unconscious for more than a few minutes, seek medical help right away.”

There are methods by which you can practise keeping your blood pressure and your heart rate jacked up in order to avoid vasovagal syncope events, but I’ve never been prepared enough to put any of these methods into use in my moments of need. “But wait–” you ask, stunned, “How often does one lose consciousness in order to pre-plan ahead for moments of need?”

The other day I was thinking about how many times I’ve passed out, and was shocked and dismayed to tally them all up. To be fair, I’ve had some pretty good reasons to faint. Well, SOME of them are good reasons, anyway. But now that I’ve written them down, it’s kind of alarming how many times I’ve lost consciousness. And they go back pretty far into my childhood.

My very first ‘eyeballs-to-heaven’ moment was when I hit my head on a cupboard door. I might have been five or six years old (I think). The cupboards in my mother’s kitchen went right to the ceiling, and for us younger (shorter) kids, it was difficult to reach anything above the first shelf without some assistance.

We were TOLD to use a stepstool. Very often we didn’t waste time getting the stepstool from across the 15-foot-wide kitchen, we just boosted ourselves up onto the counter top so we could kneel or stand to reach what we were after. Little trout-mouthed heathens, we were.

Come to find out, our parents had a valid reason for forbidding us to jump up on the counters. They didn’t want us to fall or hit our heads when we were jumping up, just like I did.

I remember it distinctly: I was after the ice cream bowls. My Uncle Wally was visiting, and we were having ice cream. I was wearing footie pajamas, which made the jumping-on-the-counter move somewhat hazardous in a full-standing position, because the plastic foots were terribly slippery on the glossy countertop (white with a gold foil accent) so I was being pretty careful, even though I was excited about the ice cream.

I placed my palms flat on the counter top and jumped to get my knees up there, too–but THUNK–I got stopped in mid-boost and gravity pulled me back to the floor.


The cupboard door above me had swung halfway open, and I had launched myself full-force into the bottom of it, whacking my skull right along my middle hair part. Not good, and not conducive to ice-cream-happiness, either.

I got thoroughly scolded for hurting myself (actually, I was probably scolded for disobeying Mom and Dad’s rule, but since I was still pretty buzzy from the head impact, I didn’t mind too much) and was set on Uncle Wally’s lap in the living room while Mom & Dad examined the cupboard door for damage (I’m joking). Sat there for a bit, watching the colours get brighter and darker for a few minutes.

Do you remember the trick that we used to play on each other in grade school, the one in which you’d simulate ‘cracking an egg’ on someone’s head and running your fingers across their hair to make it seem as though egg white was dripping down their head? That’s what it felt like when my scalp finally started bleeding from the laceration, about five minutes after I’d bashed it on the cupboard door.

At that point I didn’t know it was blood running over my hair, but I didn’t think Uncle Wally KNEW the ‘cracking an egg’ trick, and it certainly felt odd–and then suddenly I was flying through the air, but that was just Uncle Wally grabbing me under the arms and rushing toward the bathroom…and I don’t remember anything after that.

I must have been about 10 or 11 years old when I got my ears pierced, and I fainted then, too. I was very excited about getting my ears pierced like the big girls! The very nice woman who pierced them did it with a gun at Swan’s Jewelers in Rogers City, and she was very careful about marking my lobes so that my earrings would be even, although my ears certainly aren’t. She did the first piercing and even though it didn’t hurt at all, I went out like a cheap light bulb in the rain. Woke up laying on my back, looking up and arguing that I MUST have my other ear pierced because I’d be lopsided otherwise. I promised that I wouldn’t pass out with the second ear lobe, and I didn’t.

Another location in which I lost consciousness was St. Ignatius Catholic Church, on the morning of my graduating class’ commencement mass (go, RCHS Class of ’86!). It was a beautiful June morning, sunny and bright, and the church was warm. We were all very excited about commencement that evening and let’s just say that I had been paying more attention to celebrating that weekend than I had to sleeping or eating. At one point we were kneeling and the next I was out in the side parking lot between the school and the church. Thank goodness I’d keeled over while I was as close to the ground as possible.

The next time I lost consciousness was during a pre-surgery blood draw. I think I was 20 or 21, and the lab tech drawing my blood was a cutie named Tim. We were chatting and laughing and he was setting up all the tubes and vials necessary for the tests. I think at that point Tim’s impression of me was still favorable.

Then he began to draw blood, and I noted how dark and rich-looking the blood coming from my vein was. I had enough time to tell Tim that I felt odd, and I woke up laying on the floor with someone’s fingers laced behind my head, and several people peering down at me.

Tim said mournfully “That was my last clean lab coat for this week, and it’s only Tuesday.” Right then I knew he would never ask me out. So from that point on, I made certain to alert all phlebotomists of this little quirk of mine, whether or not they were potential dating material.

The weirdest aspect of my vasovagal syncope is that it’s only my OWN blood that makes me go all vasovagal and stuff. YOU can be pumping blood from an arterial laceration, and I’ll just run and get the materials for a pressure bandage and dial 911 if I can do it while keeping my phone clean, but if I am wounded, I must NOT look or you’ll be talking to yourself for a few seconds.

This occasion during which I lost consciousness was from a slip-and-fall resulting in a blow to the head, so it really doesn’t count as a plain old faint, but I’ll include it anyway because I’m tiresome like that. In 1998 we had just gotten our lab-mix Belle, and since she was an eight-week-old puppy we were in the process of house training her.

I’d just woken up and put on some driving moccasins to take her out to potty in the yard, and slipped on the deck outside. It felt like what happened every time Lucy snatched the ball away right when Charlie Brown tried to kick it–my feet went out from under me and I landed flat on my back, hitting the back of my head on the top step. (Rick says he wishes he could have seen it. Har har.)

I was out for exactly 15 minutes that time–it was 0832 hrs when I walked out the door, and it was 0847 hrs when I stumbled back in. Scared the daylights out of poor little Belly, too. The next-door-neighbor girl who was walking to the school bus, saw me laying on the front steps, but she didn’t stop because she thought I was taking a nap. Outside. On the sidewalk. At the beginning of March. With a screaming puppy in my senseless arms. IN MICHIGAN. *sigh*

At the house in Highland, I also passed out in the bathroom early one morning for some unknown reason. Maybe I really did just wake up too early to function, as I jokingly explained the incident away. I dropped like a BIG sack of potatoes and landed on my face. I had some of those really fancy eyeglass frames at that time, the ones that look more like jewelry than glasses frames, and bent those up pretty good during this incident.

By the way, that’s how you know someone really did pass out–they land on their face. If you just wipe out, or if you’re pretending to faint, you try NOT to land on your face or head.

Alarmingly enough, my wonderful hubby slept through the incredible din that I made when I fell, similar to someone dropping 180-pounds-worth of dead weight TEN FEET AWAY from the bed, but then again, he also sleeps through a ringing telephone. He’s a very sound sleeper.

I fainted once at our house in Saline, too. A week before November, we were getting out of bed and doing the morning routine. I was letting Belle and Kacey out to potty, and poor blind little Kacey looked like she was headed off the deep end of the steps, so I reached out to guide her back to the middle of the steps so she wouldn’t fall.

Clad in my standard PJs of t-shirt and panties, holding the storm door open with my right hand, I was bending over guiding Kacey with my left when a gust of wind caught the storm door like a sail on a sailboat. Unlike a sailboat, I didn’t glide gracefully. Off balance, I flew like a flying squirrel out the door and bounced down the cement stairs on my hands, knees, and stomach. Ice, cement and small rocks can do an enormous amount of damage to bare hands, knees and shins.

Rick was in the bathroom at that point, and since he was awake he heard me call out and came to my rescue. He said “It wasn’t a scream, it was more like a Tarzan yell, so I came running out to see what happened, and I find Kara laying on her belly on the patio.”

Crap. Crap, crap, crap, crappity CRAP that hurt. Rick helped me back inside and I lay down in the big fluffy recliner chair, panting and making some guttural noise that I didn’t know I could make until that moment. I told him I didn’t feel right and he told me to just stay there while he brought unguent and bandages. While he was rummaging in the bathroom, I passed out in the recliner. Vasovagal episode number umpty-umpth, in full recline. At least I couldn’t fall again.

Then that summer I tried to donate blood. I say “tried” because I don’t think I had a successful donation in any of three attempts. The first time I tried to donate, I was in a hurry to get out of the house before a showing (we were trying to sell the house, so I’d spent about an hour and a half rushing around cleaning like a maniac), then I threw the two dogs in the car and poured myself a travel mug full of orange juice and grabbed a slice of banana bread. I choked down my breakfast in the car on the way to the Red Cross office. Then, when I got there, the woman who was getting me set up couldn’t catch my vein in my left arm, not even after three tries.

She fetched another lady, who got it in my right arm in one, and I proceeded to squeeze real hard on the towel in my fist, and filled up that bag in 18 minutes. I guess it’s supposed to take much longer. Anyway, I started to feel odd again, and found out the good people at the Red Cross use paper toweling soaked in ice water to revive fainters. They were very concerned, even after I explained that I’d disregarded every single suggestion for a successful donation and that I wasn’t surprised at all that I’d gone to another dimension. Full bag of blood that they couldn’t use due to my case of the vapors.

A month to the day later, I tried it again. I ate breakfast AND lunch, stayed calm, and…it happened again. By now I’m disappointed with myself, and the ladies at the Red Cross are VERY concerned. “I don’t understand what’s going on, I donated blood while I was in high school and I didn’t pass out then, not even when I was grossed out by the feeling of the hot blood going through the tubing taped to my arm! I don’t know what the problem is!” I vented my frustration at one of the kind volunteers.

“Maybe you’re just feeling a lot of pressure right now,” she answered me soothingly. Then she made a note on my chart to put cotton between the tube and my arm during future donation attempts. “Don’t be too hard on yourself–lots of people don’t even make it through our door.”

So I tried again, one month later. I didn’t squeeze the towel too fast or too hard, I ate well, got enough sleep the night before, played happy, soothing music on the way there…and felt odd AGAIN. Woke again to the brightloudness and lots of ladies draping wet and freezing paper towels over my wrists, forehead and neck. Shoot.

Had a paper bag to breathe in this time, too. Started taking yoga breaths to calm down, and one of the ladies who had a blood pressure cuff on me said “What are you DOING? Just take deep breaths, slowly.” I said “That’s what I’m doing–it’s a yoga technique for relaxation.”

She replied “Well, it’s making your blood pressure and heart rate drop significantly. So DON’T DO THAT.”

The nice people at the Red Cross asked me not to try to donate blood again. Ever. I was sad. But I felt bad, too, at how worried they all were when I’d do my fainting goat impression, so I said “okay” and slunk back home.

There have been more incidents, maybe even a few which I don’t recall (and some of those most certainly for foolish reasons). There have been reasonable spells and not-quite-s0-reasonable spells, and after tallying up the ones I can recall, I’m afraid that I’m not the hardass I made myself out to be. I’m not even as cute as a fainting goat, just a delicate flower of womanhood, like Judy Tenuta, and don’t you be mean to me or I’ll pass out and you’ll be in trouble because you didn’t catch me before I split my lip open on the table.

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