What Happens in Vagus (the Remix)

Hi, there. This morning I fainted during an eye exam at the mall. The doctor feared I was having a seizure and called for an EMT. By the time they arrived – three EMTs and a police officer – I was fine. This fainting problem happens somewhat regularly at medical appointments. When it happened six years ago, I wrote a blog post about it. So, today I’ve dug out that golden oldie from 2013.  


“Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.” –Mahabharata

I like my eye doctor. She feeds me animal crackers and dabs my forehead with a damp cloth. She’s nice. And pretty, too.

This doesn’t sound like your typical optometrist, but I’m not your typical patient. I’m a fainter. A swooner. A savant of the smelling salts.

My daughter was with me during the eye exam. Knowing that she’ll need one before kindergarten, I brought her along to prove that it’s no big deal.

A few weeks ago, she tagged along when I got the pertussis booster vaccine. She buried her face in her hands and whimpered while the nurse gave me the injection. I tried to counteract her fears by bragging about my cool Band-Aid and, later, super-sore arm. Like most people over age two, she’s too smart for my tricks.

Long story short: playing it cool at the eye exam, I ended up out cold. When I came to—drenched in sweat, mortified—she was standing over me saying: “Mama! You took a nap!” She wasn’t even alarmed, just confused about my napping schedule.

The first time I fainted was in high school biology class. In college, I passed out during a women’s health event where the speaker was talking way too enthusiastically about cervical cancer. Over the years, I’ve become acquainted with the carpet at SLU library, the dermatologist’s office, the endocrinologist’s office, and now in the optometrist’s exam room. It had been five years since the last faint, and I thought I’d outgrown it.

The trigger is language: medical terms, procedures, mechanisms of disease, the words “catheter,” “intravenous,” and “retina.” In the latest case, the optometrist was analyzing my retinal scan, where you look through the peephole and the machine takes a quick photo of your eye—much easier than dilation. (Incidentally, if scientists could invent a similar scanning technique for pap smears, I and half the world’s population would be most grateful.) The doctor helpfully pointed out my retinal nerve and macula, and the more she used the word “retina,” the more squeamish I got. My ears were ringing, my eyes were blacking out, and consciousness slipped away.

I vaguely remember Dr. Oz talking about the vagus nerve on an episode of Oprah. He may have mentioned it in relation to fainting. I made a mental note of it then quickly forgot it—because I was planning to outgrow fainting.

The vagus nerve runs from the medulla down through the neck, chest, and abdomen, conveying “sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system” (according to Wikipedia). When your vagus nerve freaks out from stress, you suffer the most common type of fainting, vasovagal syncope. As I read Wikipedia’s list of triggers, my eyes alighted on the one closest to my heart, er, vagus nerve: “watching or experiencing medical procedures.”

Whoomp. There it is.

Willing myself to stay conscious doesn’t work. The more I tell myself, “snap out of it,” the quicker I’m out. Chances are, at darn near forty years old, I’m not going to outgrow it.

Maybe the reason for the trigger is that medical terminology reminds me that I’m a body, and bodies aren’t made to last. Practicing for death—it sounds so morbid. But that’s vaguely what my vagus nerve is up to.

Tempus fugit, memento mori, and carpe diem. This message was approved by my vagus nerve.

Thanks for reading! -Em