The following ablation story comes from Ilona. At the time of this writing she is a 45-year-old woman from New York City. She was diagnosed with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation in 2015. Her father also has afib. I only point that out because I hear from so many people who have a mother or father who also have afib. Consequently, my father also had afib. There is clearly a genetic connection with afib!
When she first contacted me in March 2017 she was having an episode every month despite taking medications to manage her afib. After struggling with the physical and mental challenges of afib throughout 2017 she finally had enough. She decided to schedule an ablation with an elite-level EP (actually a team of elite-level EPs as you’ll learn in her story). Her ablation was in March 2018. This was written by Ilona just a fews days after her ablation.
10/28/19 EDITOR’S UPDATE: I followed up with Ilona to see how she’s been doing since she had her ablation and wrote this blog post. Here is a direct quote from her email to me: “With overwhelming fear of jinxing it, I am happy to report that I live a completely “normal” afib-free life (a life that I used to live prior to my afib diagnosis). I have traveled to seven countries since my ablation. I do yoga every day and I chase after my kid. Life is so so so sweet. It’s even sweeter since I know how bad it was before. Dr.Natale and Dr.DiBiase basically fixed me. And if the the beast ever comes back (God forbid), I will not hesitate to go back to them in a hot New York minute. They are both amazing!”
I want to post this while everything is fresh on my mind. Before my ablation, I was obsessing over EXACTLY how things were going to go. I Googled every story I could find that described the process. Here is my ablation story, step-by-step. I hope it helps someone.
I arrived at the hospital at 11:00am in great spirits, nervous and hopeful. There was no looking back. I had a great team (Dr. Natale and Dr. Di Biase) and I knew I was in good hands. At about 11:15am I was checked into a small examination room. I changed into a gown with all my possessions placed in a big bag, a little vulnerable but all was good.
The first nurse took all the vitals and then asked tons of questions about my medical history. We cracked jokes to ease up the tension and one of the nurses kept singing next door. She had a beautiful voice and it was truly soothing although her colleagues said she does it all day long and it gets to be “a lot”…lol.
I was also there with two of my closest friends who kept coming in the room and giving me love. I am blessed. Shortly after I had to give urine to test for pregnancy and they also wanted to take my blood because I am anemic and the levels needed to be confirmed. To my surprise, Dr. Natale and Dr. Di Biase stopped by. They were sweet and caring. I cannot tell you how much seeing them helped me psychologically.
Overall, it was busy in my room for about an hour and then we waited, for a while (about 4.5 hours). From what I understood I was the second surgery and the first one was more complicated than anticipated plus they were still waiting on my blood results. I was thankful to wait. I was thankful that they were giving needed attention to someone else and I knew they would do the same for me.
Finally, around 5:00pm an anesthesiologist came. We discussed my history. He had a dry sense of humor and we immediately bonded over drug cocktail jokes. He was so reassuring. I asked him if he would be the closest standing to me and he said, “yes, I will be by your head the whole time.” You see, my daughter gave me a tiny soft mouse with a lucky penny inside to hold in my hand when I am nervous. I asked him if he will take care of it while I am being operated on. He said that it will be right next to me the whole time and we had one of those vulnerable human moments that is you know…beautiful.
Then, a different awesome nurse came and it was time to roll down “the hall.” I envisioned that moment so many times prior to the ablation and it was as emotional as I thought it would be. I kissed my husband. From what I heard from my friends, he broke down a little bit later. Sweet man. The nurse started rolling me down the hall. I had tears in my eyes and I kept saying a mantra that I had prepared in my mind. It was a mantra of thanks. Honestly, I was an emotional wreck.
In the hall about 15 feet from the operating door, Dr. Natale and Dr. Di Biase stood on each side of the wall greeting me. Dr. Natale brushed his hand on my head with reassurance. It was a gesture you would see done to a kid and it was super sweet. It calmed me. When we got to the door, the operating room wasn’t ready yet.
As if she was reading my mind, the nurse, in a calm, soothing voice, started telling me all the details of what was inside. I was quietly crying so she changed the topic to cats and we even managed to laugh once about cats being assholes before the doors open.
The room was not as big or scary as I anticipated. It had a lot of equipment but I was prepared to see that. Then I felt like I was a car at a NASCAR race. I was placed on the table and tons of caring hands started to work on prepping me for the surgery. That lasted maybe 5 minutes max. Everyone was so sweet to me and one of the nurses was Russian so she spoke to me in my native tongue which made me feel for a second that my parents were there too.
My daughter’s mouse went to Jeremy, the anesthesiologist. He carefully placed it next to me and said, “Your cocktail is being prepped.” An oxygen mask went over my face, I closed my eyes and five seconds later (it seemed like) I was woken up by a nurse. I was a little out of it. She said everything went great. I briefly saw smiling Dr. Natale’s face and was rolled out in a waiting room while they were prepping my room.
My husband and friends were instantly by my side. They were in good spirits and cracking jokes (they were at a bar close by for a while) but it was all kind of a blur to me. Four hours of my surgery went by in a flash. I also remember a nurse being impressed with my oxygen levels which made me feel good. And then…I felt my heart. It was metronome kind of feeling of super steady strong beat that us afibbers rarely feel. It was obviously “put in its place” and I remember listening to it in sheer amazement.
Finally, I was rolled in my room and moved to a bed. It was late and my husband and I decided to watch some TV and just rest. He finally dozed off and eventually my anesthesia wore off leaving me in pain every time I took a breath. It was sharp, short lived pain but nothing I couldn’t handle (maybe 5-6 on a 10 scale). The nurse confirmed it was perfectly normal and I just tried to stay calm, thankful, and “zen.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep at all. I was too excited that the procedure was over and a little discomfort in the chest didn’t let me get comfortable to fall asleep so I passed the time by watching TV and playing on my phone. All night I was taken care of by nurses that checked on me what seemed like hourly.
In the morning, Dr. Natale and Dr. Di Biase stopped by. They confirmed that the procedure went perfect and that the pain I felt was totally normal and would go away in 2-3 days. I hugged them both and couldn’t stop thanking them. I was told there would be a follow up at 1 and 3 months and that at 3 months they expect me to be off all medications. After they left, I got all the prescriptions explained to me and eventually after a little bit more wait…we were discharged.
Overall, the whole experience was much easier and pleasant than I anticipated. I was constantly surrounded by attention, care and love – either from my family and friends or the staff at the hospital. I am not going to lie, the date after the surgery was tough. I felt some pain every time I took a breath but I knew it was normal and I knew it would be over soon. And today, it’s 100% better! Also, you will not even be able to see my incision points unless I pointed them out to you. I think Dr. Natale just sprinkled some fairy dust there or something, you simply can’t see them!
Since my ablation I’ve had time to reflect and I’d like to share ten things that helped me in this process. I’m not trying to sound preachy, but these are just the things that helped me and maybe in return will help someone else.
1. Research and pick an EP that is the best. Travel if you have to. Do whatever you can to get the best. It’s your heart. You have one.
2. I panicked first before my ablation. Then, I had a moment of clarity that I did everything I could to make it a success and me worrying about it for months before will not make an outcome any different. After you do all the research and pick your EP, say a prayer and surrender.
3. Organize your house before you go to the hospital. You want to come back to a fresh clean start, not unwashed dishes and stacks of bills. Somehow, that helped, mentally and visually.
4. Treat the staff at the hospital, every single person that you come in contact with, with kindness. Thank them a lot. More than needed:) They deserve it. I also brought boxes of sweets with personalized thank you cards to my EPs, nurses and anesthesiologist. Watching Dr. Natale open his Italian cookies and giggling at the card calmed my nerves and I had a never-ending supply of gentle, loving nurses in my room after the cookies made it to their station. I was loved.
5. The most important note…THE ABLATION ITSELF IS EASY AND NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT. I’ve had more eventful teeth cleaning procedures. Really. And I am a nervous patient. It was a breeze. You sleep, you wake up…it’s over.
6. Be kind to yourself in recovery. Physically and mentally. Be grateful and warm in your mind and your body will follow. The day after the surgery was tough. I felt like a truck ran over me but I did everything to stay calm and light and warm. The next day I woke up with 50% less pain and I am thankful and happy. It’s a process and I can feel it.
7. This helped me a lot. I brought my own favorite Indian soft cotton blanket from home and jasmine spray that I use in the house. We were lucky enough to get a private room (thank you cookies) and me and my husband made it as “home” as a possible with that smell and blanket. Also, if you have big ear phones that can drown hospital noise…that helps too.
8. Ask questions, go over every detail of your procedure, request an ablation report…it’s your health. It’s important. The more you know, the more you can educate yourself and the more relaxed you will be in the recovery.
9. Don’t listen to your heart every second after. I know it’s silly, but I talked to my heart. I apologized for putting it through this torture and I asked him to heal well. And then, I am trying let go and not obsess about it. It’s hard but I am trying.
10. I surrendered to the thought that it might not work this first time. I did that before I even had an ablation. Of course I am hoping for the best but if it doesn’t work, it’s a journey. I will do my touch up ablation without hesitation, if needed. My eyes are on the big prize and I am thankful for every step that gets me there.
So that is my story and those are my tips. I hope this helps anyone reading this who’s considering having an ablation. I will answer any questions that you have. Feel free to ask your questions in the comments below.