THE BLOG
06/11/2014 11:33 am ET | Updated Aug 11, 2014

Fainting -- Nothing to Swoon About

Maisie Paterson via Getty Images

I recently gave a book reading in New York City where I felt the familiar signs: a warming sensation, slight nausea and lightheadedness. (No, I wasn't having a typical author reaction to a sparse but friendly audience. I usually just get nauseous.) I had forgotten a key phrase in my opening remarks, and for a moment thought I might faint, or, at the least, start to hyperventilate. Thankfully, the moment passed and I trudged on, the mental hiccup hardly noticed.

Later, I told my dad what had happened -- including the phrase that had slipped my mind -- and he reassured me everything was okay. He told me I come from a long line of fainters which was nothing in which to feel ashamed. It was just as well I had forgotten the opening phrase, he added, since it wasn't very good.

There, I admit it. I'm a fainter.

No, not the corseted Southern belle variety that puts her wrist over her brow, heaves a sigh and then swoons. That's just a myth (I think).

I'm more of the quiet type of fainter. Sounds are reduced to white noise. I get tunnel vision and feel queasy as the sensation of a thousand pinpricks runs across my torso and I begin to sweat.

If I'm standing, I may take off my shirt and rest against the side of the wall and slump to my knees -- which can be embarrassing, especially while on line at the grocery store.

If I'm in a sitting position, those around me may not even notice for several moments (or minutes). I just stare, zombie-like, in mute silence. To the casual observer, I may even resemble the most interested-looking (and awake) person at the all-staff meeting. Of course, if you call on me and there's no response, it's time to contact the paramedics.

I haven't always been a fainter, but I've fainted enough in the past year to give me cause for concern. The first time was when we had to put down our beloved black Lab, Berna, at age 12. My wife, a former hospice director and specialist in geriatric care, stood stoically beside our dog, cradling her blocky head and kissing her face throughout the ordeal. I made myself useful by simply standing by the examining table, ensuring that Berna wouldn't fall (about as helpful as when our son, Max, was born and I stood bedside in auto-pilot mode just in case I was needed -- which, thankfully, I wasn't).

I'll admit I'm a chicken when it comes to most medical procedures, needles and the first sight of blood. A pediatrician once sent me out of the room on a false pretense just so she could remove a speck of plastic from my then 5-year-old son's eye.

One glance at the sedative injected into Berna's forearm sent my heart racing. Two minutes later, I couldn't watch as the second syringe pumped the purplish-blue solution that would stop her heart. The moment it was administered, I slumped off to Neverland. I lay inert on the floor, my face as white as a sheet of paper. My poor wife thought she had not only lost her beloved dog but her slightly neurotic husband as well. I heard the sound of birds chirping, which was my wife's voice, trying to revive me just as the paramedics arrived.

My doctor said what I experienced was vasovagal syncope -- a sudden loss of consciousness caused by decreased blood flow to the brain. Apparently, this condition is fairly common and can occur in otherwise healthy individuals. The good news is that most regain complete consciousness in a few minutes without any lasting effects or the need for treatment. In patients with heart problems, though, syncope may be a warning sign of sudden cardiac arrest. Since I have no history of heart disease and am in good health, my doctor said I was most likely dehydrated and had low blood sugar, which when combined with unusually stressful situations, can lead to visual "grayouts" and fainting.

His solution was to identify those stressful situations in my life and try and avoid them, or minimize them if at all possible.

Thankfully, I have not felt the sensation of fainting since the last book reading. I now recognize all the warning signs and make sure to stay properly hydrated and avoid skipping meals.

But one cannot avoid all of life's stressful situations, and a little stress is actually good for you. For instance, my wife and I will soon adopt a Lab puppy. I'm also working on a second book, which will invariably lead to more stressful readings in the future. Now if only I could remember my lines.

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