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Linda McCoy Shares Her Experience with Atrial Fibrillation and the Ablation Procedure

McCoy HeadshotWhen I was diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation, it started out as just a routine visit to the doctor’s office. I was scheduled for just a little lab work and a refill of my prescription for high blood pressure, which has been under control for years. The doctor listened to my heart and asked the nurse to take a cardiogram. I wasn’t alarmed; I’d had Rheumatic Fever as a kid and had been through many electrocardiograms. When the doctor came back, she looked at me seriously and told me I had Atrial Fibrillation and that I needed to see a cardiologist right away. When I asked her to explain exactly what that meant, she told me my heart was not pumping correctly. She said that the blood was sitting in my heart chamber, which could cause it to form a blood clot.

I learned that the atria (the upper chambers of the heart) beat very rapidly and irregularly, "quivering" instead of contracting normally. In itself, Atrial Fibrillation isn't life threatening, but it can cause uncomfortable symptoms like palpitations, fatigue, dizziness and nausea. It can also lead to other rhythm problems and congestive heart failure. But the most serious complication is stroke: Atrial Fibrillation increases a person's risk of having a stroke fivefold because the atria can't efficiently pump blood into the ventricles (the lower chambers of the heart). When leftover blood pools in one or both atria, blood clots may form and break loose from the heart.

My doctor arranged an appointment with a cardiologist, Dr. Sandeep Gupta, for the next day. Meanwhile I was sent home with a prescription for blood thinners and a heart drug. Of course, I had to find out what “Dr. Google” said—which made me even more apprehensive. I spent a restless night worried about the next day’s visit.

My visit to Dr. Gupta confirmed my family doctor’s diagnosis. He ordered a stress test and an echocardiogram. When Dr. Gupta discussed the diagnosis with me, I asked a hundred questions. He explained to me that they don’t know what causes Atrial Fibrillation, but many people have it. He said I would have to remain on blood thinners, and he would like to treat it conservatively. He advised me about a procedure called cardioversion where under anesthesia, an electrical shock is applied to your heart to regulate your heartbeat. A week later, the cardioversion was performed, but the Atrial Fibrillation came back. A month later, another cardioversion was performed, but it was not successful in stopping the Atrial Fibrillation either.

The decision to get my heart fixed via ablation wasn’t an easy one. It is a long procedure that carries some risk, and there is no guarantee it will work. It means they cauterize the heart cells that are misfiring. Sometimes it has to be done more than once. It took me a year to muster up the courage to go forward with it. Dr. Gupta advised I would have to have a trans-esophageal echocardiogram. This is where they put a camera down your throat to better see your heart. When I went to Atrium Medical Center for this test, I was nervous—frankly, petrified—and in tears. Doctor Gupta assured me the procedure would be painless, and it was. All went well with this test, and then there was further pre-admission lab work before I was scheduled for the actual procedure. Dr. Gupta carefully explained the ablation surgery to me, he didn’t sugar-coat anything, and I really appreciated his matter-of-fact and intellectual conversation with me.

I arrived at the hospital the morning of my procedure fairly calm; I trusted Dr. Gupta, and after all, I was going to be under anesthesia. Before they wheeled me into the operating room, my husband and daughter came in the room to say goodbye. There I was, in tears (is this normal?) “Bye then, see you later.” Next I found myself in a room that looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. More computers than anyone could imagine. The room was freezing, but the nurses were wonderful, and gave me blankets. A very kind anesthesiologist put me to sleep. I awoke seven hours later; I don’t remember being taken back to my room. I was advised to lay flat for six hours and that the catheters, three in each leg, would come out when my blood reached a certain level. They allowed me to eat raspberry sorbet. I never tasted anything so good. I told my husband and daughter it was the best thing I ever ate (was I crazy?!). I went home the morning after the procedure.

The most memorable part of the recovery was fatigue, which lasted about three months until my heart healed completely. I had no pain afterward. My heart is now in normal rhythm and I feel great. My sleep is undisturbed; my family wonders why I am so calm. (Is this the new me?)

Many people walk around with undiagnosed Atrial Fibrillation; I was fortunate to be diagnosed and treated. Some of the symptoms I missed? I was nervous, tired, agitated, my face was flushed, I had sleepless nights, sometimes I was a little light-headed and loud noises made me jump out of my skin. I am past menopause so I should not have ignored these symptoms. I could feel my heart jumping around; although, like many people, I didn’t want to think it might be something serious and I attributed it to my penchant for coffee. This is an incredibly common medical condition. Millions of people have it, and doctors don’t know what causes it. But one thing is for sure, if you find yourself with these symptoms, you owe it to yourself to make a visit to your doctor. It can be managed with medication and blood thinners and for some, like me, there is the ablation procedure option.

Dr. Gupta performed my procedure in September of 2011. On my most recent visit in December 2012, he took me off of one of the drugs, and I have lost 82 pounds! I am grateful to Dr. Chandan Gupta, my family doctor, for diagnosing the Atrial Fibrillation, and to Dr. Sandeep Gupta for having the skills and knowledge to correct my condition. His follow-up care has been wonderful. I would encourage anyone who has the symptoms I described to contact their doctor and have their heart checked. Atrial fibrillation is a serious condition that can be managed with guidance by a physician with the electrophysiology skills possessed by Dr. Sandeep Gupta.