Andrea DiTullio reads this column in The Desert Advocate, near Phoenix, Arizona. She experiences a condition called syncope, which, according to a National Institutes of Health website, ‘is the temporary loss of consciousness due to a sudden decline in blood flow to the brain. It may be caused by an irregular cardiac rate or rhythm or by changes of blood volume or distribution.’
Another word for syncope is ‘fainting.’ Lately, the fainting spells haven’t been causing her that much distress; but the fear of having them has. She has panic attacks when fearing fainting, and then she has serious bouts with depression when fearing the panic attacks.
‘December 29, 1999, was the day I passed out for the first time, for about two minutes,’ said 32-year-old DiTullio in a telephone interview. ‘I had been working overtime at a hospital, wasn’t getting any sleep, and was playing a video game.’ She broke a tooth when passing out, and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.
Since that scary first episode, she has fainted perhaps another half-dozen times. She was diagnosed with syncope in 2001. As for other medical history, DiTullio years ago had two grand mal seizures, and she has epilepsy in her family history.
‘My last (syncope) episode was in 2005,’ she said. ‘When they start I usually see an aura. A light flashes in front of my eyes and I have rapid eye movement. I can stop an attack by talking myself out of one. My husband Brian helps too by talking me out of it. If he’s not around I call my mom or a doctor.’
The episodes tend to come when she is tired, hungry, and experiencing anxiety. Her last episode happened when she was working as an hospital emergency room registrar. Until she quit that job, her husband was having to talk her out of a fainting episode almost weekly. In her new, less stressful job she has had only two panic attacks and no fainting episodes in two years.
To help calm her fears of having a panic attack or a fainting episode, she sometimes plays an audio recording of soothing ocean waves. She also on occasion has gone into her bedroom, closed the blinds, and simply relaxed.
‘Just talk to somebody,’ she said to people experiencing similar situations, ‘even if it’s only a family member or friend.’