Editor’s Note: Paul is a regular reader of my blog and recently reached out to me. He wanted to share his afib story with my readers. This is his story written in his own words. I thank him for sharing his experience with us and I congratulate him on having the courage to have an ablation to end his afib. I wish him many years of NSR!
Jump Ahead To:
My Life Before Afib
My name is Paul and I have a family history of heart disease. My father died of his second heart attack at the age of 43 when I was 17. Because of this I took up running at the age of 40. In addition to my work as an IT Project Manager and Software Architect, I’ve been a professional musician since I was 19.
I’ve never been athletic, but I lived a relatively healthy lifestyle and was in decent shape. Running was a real blessing and I had never felt better in my life. I averaged 12-15 miles a week, many more on vacation, and ran a half-marathon.
The Beginning of My Afib Journey
Around November of 2017 at the age of 50 I started feeling strangely after runs. I thought maybe I was just getting older and trying too hard to keep up with younger runners. My symptoms were a very fast and erratic heartbeat especially triggered by running. When it started I dialed my effort back a little but that didn’t work.
It became progressively easier to trigger the attacks. The attacks would last anywhere from a few hours to as many as 24 hours on a few occasions. I went to my local doctor and cardiologist who ordered a monitoring vest.
The vest showed that most of the time I had a perfect heart rhythm of 51 beats per minute at rest. However, when I went out running the attack would happen. My heart-rate would jump to over 200 and be very erratic. I was diagnosed with Afib.
At my follow-up visit to the cardiologist we discussed the results. He scratched his head as to what course of action to try. He suggested metoprolol during my attacks to ease the symptoms. He also suggested that I stop running until we figured out the next move.
The metoprolol was a disaster. Because I’m a runner, my blood pressure is good and low. The metoprolol dropped it through the floor. I came very close to passing out a few times.
I found ways to pray, meditate, and relax to try to prevent the Afib thinking that I could learn to live with it, but it kept coming back. I would have an attack about once per week. Sometimes they would be triggered by nothing at all, just sitting and watching TV with my family.
At my next visit with the cardiologist we discussed other possible drug options. They were not really options in my case. My Afib was paroxysmal meaning it happened occasionally, not constantly. Most of the drug treatments are geared to persistent Afib. Regardless, most drug treatments are proven to be less effective as your body gets used to the drug causing you to need more and more over time until they simply no longer work.
For me, a major downfall of drugs was how they affected me. I nearly passed out taking metoprolol. Drugs simply wouldn’t allow me to return to running which had become a big part of my life.
The other drawback even if I took drugs was that the longer you have Afib, the more deeply the problematic pathways in your heart can become which can make treatment more difficult.
The Decision to Have an Ablation
Based on all this information we decided that an ablation was the best course of action. Ablations are not without risk, however. In fact, the risks can be extreme although the occurrence of complications is historically very low. Still, they were scary sounding.
Risks aside, I was told that with the ablation I would be able to return to running and all my usual tasks. It’s a quality of life decision. The success rate is high. It was explained to me that it is not a cure for Afib. Afib is a condition that can return after an ablation. I was very glad that my EP was very straight with me about the procedure, the risks, and rewards.
The date of my ablation was set for three months later. I was actually comforted by the wait. I figured if the doctors were that busy then they must be getting lots of experience.
The next three months were hard on my family. I kept a game face on, but they knew that I was worried. It’s a terrible feeling knowing that something as critically important as your heart is malfunctioning. I could remind myself of all the things that my doctors told me: not to worry because I have a strong heart because of my running, most people don’t die from Afib, and my attacks only lasted around 12 hours.
It was rough during the attacks wondering if THIS time I should go to the hospital. I was consumed with the thought of it and all the what-ifs.
I think it was hardest on my wife. I knew how I felt inside but she had to take my word for it that I was feeling fine. During this time, I also took a small hiatus from playing music professionally. This is something that always brought me much joy and peace and taking a break from it was very hard to do.
An interesting thing happened during the three-month wait. My Afib events seemed to lessen in frequency and severity. I was being very careful with exertion which I knew would bring on events so this may have helped. Also, the fact that I was committed to a course of action may have reduced stress.
I still had the occasional event, but they stopped lasting 12 hours. Maybe I just got used to them. I started wondering if I was being selfish putting myself and my family through such a potentially extreme procedure so that I could continue running. Maybe I was supposed to stop running and lead a quieter life. Maybe the Afib would quiet down and I would get used to it with much less risk and cost than having the ablation.
The Afib Episode that Validated My Decision to Have an Ablation
My decision to have an ablation was validated the weekend before the ablation date. The family went on a camping trip to a familiar spot. No exertion, just a relaxing weekend. The second night of the trip I had an event starting in the middle of the night. I barely slept and didn’t tell anyone what was happening in the morning. We went on a light hike. There were a few times during the hike where I almost passed out.
I had never had an event this strong before and frankly I was a little scared. Along with the Afib came the worry. What if I was still in Afib tomorrow, who would drive the trailer home? Should I call an ambulance out in the middle of the woods? It was terrible.
All of the sudden in the afternoon an overwhelming feeling of normalcy overcame me. The episode had finally ended. I experienced the dividing line between a normal heartbeat and one that was out of control. I was very thankful for that event. I knew at that moment that if there was a possibility of stopping these events without taking drugs I wanted to try it regardless of the risks. I felt good about moving forward with the ablation.
My Ablation Experience
The morning of October 25, 2018 we drove the hour and a half to University of Maryland Baltimore. The team there was excellent through the entire process. I was on the table for over 5 hours. I had a radio-frequency ablation. During the procedure they found a few “hot spots” that they treated with cryo-ablation.
I spent a total of 24+ hours in the hospital including recovery and went home to recuperate over the weekend. I spent the weekend watching Netflix and felt generally well. I even went for a couple of short walks. I wouldn’t call the process painless or easy, but it wasn’t terrible. I had no issues with bleeding at the incision sites. I was pretty wiped out from the whole experience mostly due to the anesthesia. During the recovery period I was instructed to take Nexium and Eliquis.
I went back to work the following Monday and took it easy. I gradually got back to feeling like myself again. During the three-month period while the heart was healing there were a few episodes of odd beats. I have to admit they were alarming, but I was warned of them.
Life After My Ablation
I think in hindsight the hardest part of Afib is the mental aspect. I miss the days when a slightly racing heart or a flutter feeling simply meant that I was excited. Now I have to convince myself that it’s not something serious. The anxiety can sometimes be tremendous (and I’m not an anxious person at all).
I promised myself that I would give myself a full month without any exercise at all. That moratorium ended on Thanksgiving Day of 2018. I woke up and went for a 2-mile jog. Very, very lightly. It felt good, but my legs were so tired after having not run for so long. I gradually added miles over the months and then tried adding a little more effort and speed. I also promised myself to not push until after the full three months.
I’m now four months post-ablation. I ran my first 2 miles at a 10-minute pace which is close to where I was pre-ablation. Every run feels better and I’m feeling stronger and stronger. Overall, I feel like myself again and am so very thankful for it! I’m also back to playing music regularly and even went hunting a few times.
Through this experience I’ve read so many stories online and know that each case is different. I’m very thankful that I was running before the Afib happened. As a result, I started my afib journey in a very healthy state. In the lead-up to the procedure I had all sorts of heart testing done and was able to clinically confirm my heart was healthy and strong. This was a true comfort because of my family history of heart disease.
I pray that I can continue to heal and improve and live a long life being healthy and running. I want to be the best that I can be so that I can do the work that God put me here to do. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me!