hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

November 22, 2012

Solving her mystery illness

Woman raises awareness of link between fainting, heart problem

By Alex Lippa

---- — Almost two years ago, Roberta Conte was at work when she started to feel lightheaded.

“It’s like I just wanted to hit the floor,” she said. “I wanted to collapse.”

After she received tests for many months and suffered several scary fainting incidents, doctors still didn’t know exactly what was wrong with Conte.

Little did she know, her heart was at the root of the problem.

“The last thing I thought would be wrong was my heart,” she said.

Conte, 62, of Haverhill was diagnosed with syncope, a condition which simultaneously causes a drop in heart rate and a drop in blood pressure. After living with a pacemaker in her body for a year now, Conte has not had any fainting spells.

According to statistics provided by the Take Fainting to Heart Campaign, fainting is often the only sign of an abnormal heart rhythm, which is the leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest. The campaign is working to raise awareness of the connection between fainting and the heart, and that methods exist to ease such health issues.

Conte’s condition offers a prime example of the connection between fainting and the heart and what can be done to improve a patient’s situation, the campaign says.

Although her mystery has been solved, there were many nervous moments for Conte along the way.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the sense of what caused it,” she said. “I didn’t know when it was going to happen or why it was happening. It had to have happened for a reason. People don’t just normally faint.”

It all started last January, when Conte, a nurse at Commonwealth Hemotology/Oncology in Haverhill, started feeling faint one day. She asked her boss if she could go home, but her boss told her to go to the emergency room immediately.

There, doctors performed an ultrasound, a CT scan and an EKG test, but couldn’t find anything wrong with her. They gave her a Holter heart monitor to wear. It monitors all heart activity, but after nothing abnormal was detected, she was told that she probably had just been dehydrated.

A few months later in May, Conte again started to get dizzy and eventually fainted in a Dunkin’ Donuts. In August, she felt faint again, this time while brewing a cup of coffee in her home.

Conte went to the hospital and many tests were done again, but doctors still could not determine the cause of her fainting.

After seeing many specialists, Conte went to Ken Adams, a cardiologist at Pentucket Medical Associates. Adams decided he would use a special recorder to track Conte’s heart beat. Last November, it detected a severe abnormality.

Conte’s heart rate would sometimes drop as low as 31 beats per minute, a rate which can cause serious heart issues.

The next day, Conte went in for an operation where doctors placed a pacemaker in her chest to keep her heart beat regular. She will have the device permanently, but she said it is worth the change because it allows her to return to a normal life.

Since Conte received the pacemaker, she has not had any fainting incidents and does not have any restrictions on her daily life.

She did have an issue when she tried to go through security at the airport, however.

“Anything that can pace the heart can set the machine off,” she said.