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Fast forward to August 3, 2013, a day that will forever be embedded in my memory. That day started like any other Saturday. I woke up, ate breakfast and spent some time with family. But, after being up for 30 minutes, I knew something just wasn’t right. I felt anxious, sick to my stomach, and just plain off. I was diagnosed at age 16 with anxiety and panic attacks, so I figured it was one of my twice a year episodes that I would just sleep off as usual. By the time my mom came back from the grocery store — my parents live with me- she knew I wasn’t feeling well. I took my usual anxiety medication, but it just wasn’t helping. I tried laying down, but could not sleep. My mom suggested going to the ER. At first I was hesitant, because I thought it was just a usual panic attack, but something just told me to go.
Upon arrival I was taken into triage and asked the usual questions about my symptoms. No big deal, right? Then came the vitals, my blood pressure was 168/96, which is high for me. I usually have pretty low blood pressure. By now I am getting a tad worried and I think to myself, “Okay, I am 38 years old, have a stressful job, oh my gosh, could this be a heart attack?” I was immediately wheeled back into a room where a team is already waiting. Yes, I must be having a heart attack! They hooked me up to so many wires I thought that I could pick up NASA. The nurse handed me four baby aspirin to chew and another started an intravenous drip. By now my panic is off the charts and I swear I am having a heart attack and no one is telling me. I kept thinking, “Why is this heart machine going off like crazy every few minutes and where is the cardiac team?”
After two EKGs and what seemed like a very long time, a doctor came in and explained that I was in atrial fibrillation (AFib). I wonder, “What is that? Does this cause a heart attack? Am I going to die? Answer me!” After smiling calmly, he explains AFib is an irregular heart beat and he has never heard of someone having a heart attack from it. He states he was going to administer a medication to try and lower my heart rate, which was spiking around 160ish. I am one of the world’s biggest pill-phobics you’ll ever meet. I immediately asked questions about what the medication was for and what the side effects were.
After two doses, I was still in AFib, but had a lower heart rate. I was admitted. By the next morning, my heart had converted back to a normal rhythm. The hospital did regular testing, labs every two hours, then four hours, and then an echocardiogram. All came back normal. I was released, told to take a baby aspirin daily, and follow up with the attending cardiologist in two weeks. After three visits, I was deemed healthy and was told it was probably a one-time episode and to go live my life.
Fast forward to Nov. 21, 2013. Three days before Thanksgiving, I feel funny again, I felt my pulse and it was very erratic. It was AFib again and I was off to the ER. The EKG confirmed AFib. An was IV started, and labs drawn. Luckily for me this time, the ER doctor I had actually has AFib himself! I was so relieved to have a doctor who truly understood what I was feeling. He ordered medication to try and convert me back to normal rhythm, but I converted back to normal on my own. He then ordered a sleep study and explained how sleep apnea can be a cause of AFib and that he himself had both. I was told to follow up with the cardiologist and fitted with a 24-hour heart monitor. That night, I did a lot of online reading to learn everything I could about AFib. The one thing I kept seeing over and over again in every article was that AFib can cause a higher risk of strokes due to blood clots that form in your upper chambers of the heart. I was vey scared. Joining online support groups helped me immensely in my quest for information and reassurance.
After a successful appointment with my cardiologist, I was placed on anticoagulants or blood thinning medication, and then it was decided that I would have my first ablation surgery in February 2014. The procedure was a success, and I remained in complete normal rhythm for five glorious months – until the dreaded AFib came back. I did everything right! My next step was ablation number two in September 2014, when I went back into the cath lab for another procedure, including an ILR (internal loop recorder) that will monitor my heart for three years. My doctor was very pleased with my results this time. He showed me 3D images of my heart, where one tough spot to get to in the upper left chamber of my heart did not form a proper scar to block the AFib pathways. However, he was able to use a new ablation tip and gave me a 95% success rate. I was home the next morning, continued on anticoagulants, and with a follow-up appointment in three months. I was able to stop the blood thinners on Christmas Day 2014. I am exited to say I have been AFib free since, with only a few “blips” since. I am very pleased with my decision to have a second ablation.
I learned some important things too on my journey. You need to take an anticoagulant; there are so many people who have and are still living with this affliction, you are not alone; there are no cures for AFib, only treatment; and the support I received from day one was crucial to my recovery. Knowledge is power, learn everything you possibly can about your health issues. Be your own advocate because it’s your body and your decisions.