When Brienna Hayter fainted on the first day of classes earlier this year, no one thought anything of it. She laughed with her friends as lyrics about “lying on the cold hard ground” from Taylor Swift’s song, “Trouble” rang around the lunch table. No one expected it to become an ongoing issue.
“I hadn’t been feeling well about an hour before, and my head had a strange fuzziness to it, but I had just assumed I hadn’t eaten enough for breakfast and continued about my day. It was about another week later, at the leadership conference, when the symptoms repeated themselves and I fainted in chapel. Again, I hadn’t eaten as much as I had liked because I accidentally slept in. So I just assumed I had low blood sugar or something. But after talking to my mom about it, she suggested that I go to UMS (our university’s health clinic) just to be safe and check it out.
“A couple days later I sat in the doctor’s office and had a typical check-up and an additional blood test and EKG just to be safe. At the end of the day, they suggested dehydration, hypoglycemia or pots syndrome to be the root cause of my fainting and told me that if I stayed hydrated, drank lots of Gatorade, and ate every 2-3 hours then my symptoms would go away.
“That was on Tuesday, January 26. By Tuesday February 2nd I had fainted six times, four since that appointment. The fainting wasn’t just more frequent, the same symptoms began to occur multiple times a day, some resulting in fainting, but all resulting with me on the floor in tears and in prayer. The symptoms – a strong headache, fuzzy focus, loss of control of my limbs, loss of communication, loss of vision etc. – worsened the later the week went. At that point I had fainted sitting, standing, walking, in class, chapel and church. And on Monday I even fainted twice within 12 hours.
“My second doctor’s appointment was scheduled for the 2nd. But because at this point my fainting was so severe, my mom drove down and the UMS doctor told us to go to an emergency room ASAP. So we left for the University of Michigan’s hospital which is conveniently 25 minutes from my house.
“I arrived in the emergency room at 7 pm. It took about an hour and a half before I was in a room and getting my vitals checked. At about 9 pm I was settled in an ER room and had had an EKG (which came up normal). They took me in for a CAT scan at about 11 pm. At 2 am a neurologist came in, asked hundreds of questions, did a couple tests and left. It wasn’t until 5 am that I was admitted into the hospital. The results for the CT scan had come back normal too (praise the Lord), which was encouraging. But at this point we still had no answers. We finally met the team of doctors at 9 am. Their main focus was neuro but the cardiac doctors were also interested in my case as well. The plan for the week was to have an EEG (24-hour test where my head is connected to 30 waves and they can watch my brain activity), an MRI, EMG and autonomic testing.
After the EEG was set up at 10am, I was given a panic button and instructions to press it if any of my “normal” symptoms came on. At about 1 pm I was napping due to a lack of sleep the night before when I began to experience strange chest pains. I alerted the nurses about 30 seconds before I lost control of my limbs and went into an “episode”.
“For about 7 minutes my heart rate jumped from 51 bpm to 167 bmp. My breathing was frantic, vision lost, and my body went into paralysis for the full 7 minutes. Not only could I not see or feel my limbs, I experienced extreme pain that seemed to resonate throughout my body but especially in my chest. I tried to communicate but nothing came out.
“It took about 90 minutes before I was back to “normal”. I had regained complete strength and was communicating and laughing as I usually do. The chest pain continued but the doctors explained that a max heart rate for 7 minutes does that to a person. My dad hadn’t even seen me faint before this, and of course, he was a mess.
“I had two other “episodes” that day, all tracked on the EEG. Neither of them were even close to as bad as the first.”
Doctors told Brienna the next day that her brainwaves remained normal through all three of the episodes, and that none of the episodes had been seizures. The MRI administered to test for brain complications also came back negative.
“As a family we were deeply encouraged by this. Yet, still unsure of what to do.
“A couple of hours later the doctors came in to discuss my diagnosis. The good news was that my brain and heart activity seemed normal and I was pronounced seizure free. The bad news was that they are still unsure of the diagnosis.”
Brienna laughed as she called herself a “medical mystery”. Her doctors have made many educated guesses since her visit to the hospital in February of what could be the diagnosis. Their hypotheses have ranged from serious conditions like autonomic neuropathy, to POTS, to simply a bad reaction to a yellow fever vaccine Brienna received in December in preparation for her summer plans to teach in a school in Africa. But at the time of the interview, they weren’t any closer to finding an answer.
“It’s definitely a challenge.
“On a purely logical basis, this means that I will experience these “episodes” and fainting for the rest of my life. I am no longer allowed to drive (legally, not just an instruction). There are plenty of restrictions on my daily activities. There are some things I can change to minimize symptoms, but it is likely I will continue to faint often and struggle with these severe episodes.”
As the semester went on, the spells became more frequent and the recovery time longer. An academic overachiever, Brienne admitted her stress about finishing the semester well. A track athlete by nature, she now has to adapt to being slowed down by her condition.
“She’s [been] brought to her lowest point a lot,” said Esther, one of Brienna’s closest friends.
But despite this sudden trial, Brienna has made it a point to make the best of the situation. “She’s really good at being goofy and positive all the time,” said Courtney, another close friend. “One of my favorite things about her is that she doesn’t really care about what people think of her.”
Brienna knows she’s not alone in her struggle, and she says it’s a great encouragement to her. Not only does she have faithful friends standing by her side, but the campus community has also stepped in to support her as well. And she says that this support combined with the constant availability of Scripture has been the “driving force” that has kept her going.
She takes to heart verses like Isaiah 40:28-31, which promises renewed strength to those who wait on the Lord; and II Corinthians 4:8-12, where Peter talks about Christ’s power shown through our weakness.
“I’m a mess,” she laughed. But she said that knowing that God is working and being glorified through her life has given her the strength to smile – and laugh – in the midst of her trials.
Brienna Hayter is a junior education major at Cedarville University. You can read more from her on her blog: Brienna Hayter