Nikki Bergen

Belle Talk

Life Lessons from a Pregnant Fitness Teacher

By: Nikki   , ,

I hate running. I’m that person who buys overpriced loungewear that says “Shopping is my Cardio” across the front in block letters.

But it wasn’t always that way. The truth is, I’ve come to convince myself that I hate anything my body can’t do. Call it sour grapes rationalization (a term I recall fondly from that Psych 101 undergrad course back in ‘99), call it a defense mechanism – my utter distain for running is actually a highly useful psychological tool, especially for a girl who has chosen a career in the fitness industry.

I have a congenital heart condition called Supraventricular Tachycardia, or SVT. SVT is an electrical issue. Most people have one electrical pathway in their heart. I have two – a good one and a bad one.  This condition often affects young, athletic healthy people. I was first diagnosed at the age of 14 while competing on my high school swim team.

It’s not painful and you don’t die from it, but it’s a pain in the ass – and somewhat dangerous. Your heart beats crazy fast, sometimes up to 220 bpm and your blood pressure takes a nose dive until it feels like you may pass out, and you might.  It happens whenever my heart skips a beat. Everyone’s heart skips a beat now and then, often during sustained aerobic exercise (read: running) and sudden high impact movement.  However, a skipped heartbeat for me can trigger my bad electrical pathway and the heart rhythm gets confused. It basically becomes an electric disco party in my ventricles.

Many times I can convert out of the arrhythmia through certain vagal maneuvers (bearing down, massaging the carotid artery in my neck, lying on my back with legs in the air), BUT sometimes that doesn’t work, and then there’s a 911 ambulance trip to the ER to get an intravenous drug called adenosine to basically stop and restart my heart, Pulp Fiction style.  The drug makes you feel like an elephant is crushing your chest. In fact, a paramedic in training once told me his text book read “…patients will feel an impending sense of doom following adenosine treatment.” It’s a pretty accurate description. Luckily the feeling only lasts about 10-20 seconds before your heart resets.

I’ve had this drug 4 times in my life.  Once after finishing Tough Mudder (should not have ignored the “DO NOT PROCEED IF YOU HAVE A HEART CONDITION” note at that electric shock obstacle), once while half naked on an exam table in a fertility clinic, once while teaching an intense fitness class and most recently at 6.5 months pregnant while attending a friend’s baby shower.

Getting pumped up for Tough Mudder.

Taken after receiving adenosine for the first time after completing the Tough Mudder course back in 2012.

The most recent episode at the baby shower was incredibly dramatic.  I had been sitting on the couch reaching for some fruit salad when boom, enter SVT.  I quietly excused myself and tried to get out of the arrhythmia in the powder room, but no such luck.  My friend’s baby shower was completely ruined once two teams of paramedics showed up.  I still feel horrible about it, and definitely traumatized several guests in the process. No one likes to see a massive pregnant woman lurching around on the bathroom floor while getting shot up with drugs. It was a memorable baby shower for all!


Celebrating my amazing friend at her shower (she’s on the right). Taken 20 minutes before SVT episode.

Less than an hour later. She left her OWN baby shower and came to the ER with me. Love this woman.

Now at the ripe age of 36, I’ve been dealing with this condition for well over half my life.  As a self-proclaimed A-type personality, living with SVT has taught me so much about learning to let go of control.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is surrender to your body, without fear or judgement. It’s hard to describe the sensation of trying to calmly breathe through a racing heartbeat, not knowing if you’ll be ok in 2 minutes, or if you need to call 911.

If it wasn’t for western medicine, I’m doubtful I’d still be here. That’s a bold statement, but a true one.

I’m now 8 months pregnant and have had to stop teaching group classes much earlier than I’d hoped. The risk for triggering another SVT episode is too great. Pregnancy makes the condition worse because your heart has to work harder to pump 50% extra blood volume. Yet to be honest, there’s a certain amount of  ‘fitness instructor ego’ I had carried with me into this pregnancy.

I planned to teach until 39 weeks pregnant, gain no more than 20 lbs., and basically stay ripped. That has not happened.  I also wanted a glorious drug-free water birth with midwives, but now need to be at a level 3 hospital with an OB, Cardiologist and epidural to regulate my heart rhythm.

I wryly chuckle to myself as I write this. The lessons keep coming.  We had to do IVF to conceive this baby (NOT part of the plan), and now I must again relinquish control over my body and learn to release judgement over myself. I’ve decided to get an ablation surgery this summer that will hopefully fix this heart condition once and for all. I was too scared to do it in the past, but becoming a mother is bringing out the bravery in me.

There’s so much insidious pressure on women surrounding their bodies and surrounding birth – particularly to “go natural.” There’s a sense that natural conception and birth is a choice, and many traumatized new moms have confided in me their dark feelings of guilt and shame in not having been able to stick to their plan.

We need to celebrate ALL births and women, regardless of how or where they happen.

I’ve come to realize that the people who suffer most from self judgement and fear are the ones most likely to pass judgement over others. The mommy world is rife with guilt, shame and judgement. If we could just learn to be easier on ourselves, we would be easier on others.

But perhaps the greatest lesson in this whole journey is this:  It is through learning how to release self-judgement that we become truly free and empowered, and can then empower and support others.


Leave a Comment