During a 2005 dance performance in Amy Parrish’s junior year of high school, her heart was racing so fast she couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t because of adrenaline or excitement; it was her heart condition.
Parrish had been given a monitor to transfer her heart rate into hospital computers by phone every time she had chest pain. After the high-energy dance, she rushed backstage and held the monitor over her heart, pushed the button that recorded her heart rate and gave it to her mother to call in while she ran back on stage for the next dance.
“They were, like, you need to get her into the emergency room now,” Parrish said.
“She can’t,” her mother had said. “She’s in her dance recital.”
Now a 19-year-old MU nursing student from Quincy, Ill., Parrish has been dancing since she was 3. Though she didn’t have any problems as a child, as her body matured she started feeling something in her chest and brushed it off as heartburn.
“Everything gets tight,” Parrish said. “First in the chest and then down my left arm.” The pain, she said, is sharp and intense and can happen four times over an hour and last for five minutes at a time.
She ignored it for a while, but then a physical for her dance team turned up an irregular heartbeat, and she was told to follow up with a cardiologist. She has since had two heart surgeries.
Before being diagnosed, Parrish was a champion in power tumbling at the state and national levels. Afterward, she had to quit because it was too much stress on her body.
“My body couldn’t produce adrenaline because my medicine was lowering my heart rate so much,” Parrish said. “I would literally be seeing stars during my routines because I was so dizzy and light-headed.”
But she had to keep dancing.
“It’s just something that I absolutely love doing,” Parrish said. “As much as it seems like it’d be worse for me to do that activity, I actually feel better a lot of times when I’m out there and I’m just doing it because it’s what I love to do.”
Beth Heinze, her dance teacher in Quincy, recalled that she had to tell Parrish to sit down sometimes because she kept trying to participate even in tears.
“She hated to sit out because she is not one to be pitied,” Heinze said. “I would never put the word ‘lazy’ with Amy.”
At her peak, Parrish was competing in level eight gymnastics and kick boxing for an hour with ease. Now, she said, she can’t even run.
“It’s so frustrating because I know I’m a healthy person, and after doing something like climbing a flight of stairs I feel like I’m so out of shape,” Parrish said.
The most frustrating thing for her is that doctors can’t tell her exactly what her condition is. She has seen specialists in Springfield, St. Louis and Columbia, and no one has been able to give it a name or tell her why she has it.
“I feel the pain. I know what I feel like. I know that I’m exhausted, but there’s nothing that they can really do,” Parrish said. “They can treat the symptoms with medication after medication and, you know, it helps, but it doesn’t go away.”
The doctors first held a cluster of abnormal cells interfering with her sinoatrial node, the natural pacemaker of the heart, responsible for Parrish’s racing heart. Before her first surgery, she had 20,000 extra heartbeats in a day. In theory, cauterizing those cells would have solved the problem, so the doctors did it.
“Everything was fine in the first 24 hours,” Parrish said.
Then it wasn’t.
“It came back even worse,” she said.
She had a second surgery. Two years later, Parrish is still dancing — and still experiencing pain.
“You’re always going to have something difficult that comes your way,” she said. “Nothing’s ever going to be easy. You can’t let it stop you from doing anything.”
But there was an unexpected benefit. After having memorable experiences with nurses and wanting to find a solution herself, Parrish finally knew what she wanted to be: a nurse.
Still, Parrish is tired because of the inefficiency of her heart. During long and stressful days of nursing school, Parrish finds it hard to stay awake. Frustrating was the word she used over and over again.
“Sometimes I physically can’t get out of bed in the morning,” she said. “I try to study, and there is no way for me to stay awake because my body just needs that rest.”
After sticking with dancing through all the heart problems and finding a studio to call her own in Columbia, Parrish fears that with next semester’s schedule she won’t be able to keep up with both school and dance. In store is the class Nursing of Adults 1.
“Everyone says if you’re going to fail one, that’s the one,” she said.
Still, she said she wants to take time to dance.
“I enjoy it so much. I think I’m still going to try to take one dance class just to have my time to do my thing and go in there (the studio),” Parrish said. “If all I think about is nursing all the time, I’d go crazy.”