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Atrial Fibrillation: My Father Is Always Out of Rhythm!

S E Hurst graduated from the University of Tennessee with a PhD in Comparative and Experimental Medicine in 2012.

My Father Had an Irregular Heartbeat

It was a sunny winter day over 10 years ago when I got an unexpected call. My mother told me that my father was being taken to the hospital for cardiac monitoring. It turned out that my father’s heart was out of rhythm. Being out of rhythm or having atrial fibrillation is a common, but often under-diagnosed, heart condition. A heart in atrial fibrillation doesn't beat efficiently. It may not be able to pump enough blood out to the body with each beat.

Some people with atrial fibrillation have no symptoms and are unaware of their condition until it's discovered during a physical examination. Based on my father’s diagnosis, two of my uncles went to the doctor and were also diagnosed with heart conditions—one with atrial fibrillation and the other with a blockage.

Atrial fibrillation (A-Fib) is an irregular, often rapid heart rate that causes poor blood flow to the body. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers (the atria) beat chaotically and irregularly hence the term “out of rhythm.” Common symptoms of this condition include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, confusion, chest pain and weakness.

Atrial fibrillation occurs when the top two chambers (atria) beat irregularly (i.e. not in rhythm with the rest of the heart).

Atrial fibrillation occurs when the top two chambers (atria) beat irregularly (i.e. not in rhythm with the rest of the heart).

Cardioversion Was the First Treatment Option

While atrial fibrillation isn't usually life-threatening, it is a serious medical condition that sometimes requires emergency treatment. After the first episode, my father underwent cardioversion—first with medication, then with electricity. The goal of cardioversion is to reset the heart rate and rhythm to normal (60 to 80 beats per minute).

Being off by a few beats—like in the case of my father, whose heart rate was between 81 and 84 bpm at rest—can cause the signs and symptoms mentioned above. To restore normal rhythm to my father’s heart, he had to be shocked three times! If you have ever been shocked, imagine the intensity magnified and directed at your heart. That alone is enough to raise the heart rate!

ECG showing the shock delivered in a cardioversion procedure in an attempt to restore regular heartbeats.

ECG showing the shock delivered in a cardioversion procedure in an attempt to restore regular heartbeats.

When Cardioversion Didn't Work, He Had Cardiac Ablations

Even with the best care and treatments like those mentioned above, the problem of A-Fib isn’t solved. After cardioversion, sadly only about 50% of patients have normal heart rhythms restored. This was my father’s case. He had to undergo yet another procedure, cardiac ablation.

Cardiac ablation is a procedure to correct heart rhythm problems. It works by destroying the tissue in your heart that triggers an abnormal heart rhythm. In some cases, cardiac ablation prevents abnormal electrical signals from traveling through your heart, thus stopping the arrhythmia.

We joke that my father’s heart was so big that he had to undergo over 140 ablations before normal rhythm was restored. The doctor even commented that the number was especially high!

atrial-fibrillation-my-father-is-always-out-of-rhythm

The Good News and Bad News

For atrial fibrillation, several US heart centers claim 75% success rate after cardiac ablation. However, recent studies claim success rates much lower at 28% or lower. Oftentimes, several procedures are needed to raise the success rate to the 70-80%. Just a few weeks after the cardiac ablation, my father underwent yet another cardioversion. Today, he is feeling much better and we pray the effects last. Only time will tell.

This is a photo of my dad and I at our first AHA Heart Walk.

This is a photo of my dad and I at our first AHA Heart Walk.

It's Important to Have Yearly Physical Exams

To conclude, I can’t stress enough the importance of a yearly physical examination. If my father hadn’t gone to the doctor, he may not be here today. I lost all my grandparents to heart conditions, and I certainly don’t want to lose my daddy.

If you have any symptoms of atrial fibrillation, or any other heart condition, please make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Your doctor should be able to tell you if your symptoms are caused by atrial fibrillation, another heart arrhythmia, or another heart condition.

If you have chest pain, seek emergency help immediately. Chest pain could signal that you're having a heart attack. My mother suffered from heart attack at age 35, and it is not a fate I would wish on any individual.

I want to be a walking billboard for heart disease and prevention.

I want to be a walking billboard for heart disease and prevention.

An Ounce of Prevention

I cannot stress enough the importance of prevention. While individual genetics play a significant role in the manifestation of heart disease, making changes in your environment (i.e. lifestyle changes) can improve your natural risk factors and offset the onset of the heart condition.

Trust me. With a family history like mine, I am preaching to myself as well as the reader. Here are just a few simple lifestyle changes that can have a huge impact on your heart and over all health:

  • Eat heart-healthy foods
  • Use less salt
  • Drink more water
  • Increase your physical activity
  • Quit smoking
  • Limit your alcohol consumption to 1 or 2 drinks/day

References

  1. What is Atrial Fibrillation? American Heart Association. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation/what-is-atrial-fibrillation-afib-or-af
  2. Cardioversion. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cardioversion/about/pac-20385123
  3. Cardiac Ablation. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). (2018). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cardiac-ablation/about/pac-20384993

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Sarah Hurst

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