I spent Saturday morning in a room full of broken hearts. Some were beating a lot faster than they should have been. Some were being monitored electronically. And some were beating only with the help of a pacemaker.
It was two days before Valentine’s Day, and I had taken my mom to a heart symposium at St. Joseph’s Hospital & Medical Center. The topic was atrial fibrillation, something my mom has experienced for herself. (Her husband and I experienced it too, one Saturday morning when I was visiting them in Green Valley. One second Mom was stirring oatmeal at the stove and the next she had fallen over backwards in a dead faint, whacking her head on the tile floor near my feet.)
Atrial Fibrillation (also called AF or AFib) is a common heart rhythm disorder caused by rapid and uncoordinated conduction of electrical impulses from the upper chambers of the heart, according to materials created for the session, which was conducted by physicians from the Heart & Lung Institute at St. Joe’s. AFib affects more than two million people in the U.S. and is a leading cause of stroke. It can also lead to early heart failure and the need for a pacemaker if not properly treated.
My mom’s first indication that she had heart disease occurred one fall a few years ago, when she and her husband were driving from Arizona to Pennsylvania. She didn’t know that her fatigue, swollen ankles and difficulty breathing were related to her heart. When she got home and reported the symptoms to her doctor, she was immediately hospitalized for congestive heart failure. Some time later, she underwent a catheter ablation procedure to stop the wildly firing electrical signals in the left atrium of her heart. Since then she has been been relatively symptom-free and can take aspirin (not the rat poison Coumadin, which is commonly prescribed) to keep her blood thin enough to prevent formation of a clot that could travel to her brain and cause a stroke.
While my mom’s heart condition is stable, it was sobering to learn during the Saturday session that the catheter ablation procedure is not a definitive cure for AFib. At some point she may have to consider other options.
It was jaw-dropping amazing to listen to cardiac electrophysiologist Wilber W. Su, M.D. describe the cryoballoon procedure he can do to cure some types of AFib. (Su was the primary investigator on a device that was just approved last Christmas. The Heart & Lung Institute is now the only site in Arizona where this minimally invasive procedure can be done.)
Then cardiac surgeon Lishan Aklog, M.D., director of The Cardiovascular Center at the Heart & Lung Institute, described surgical cures for AFib that were unheard of as recently as six years ago.
In January, during research for an independent writing project, I witnessed one of those procedures during a six-hour open-heart surgery. Brian deGuzman, M.D., associate chief of cardiovascular surgery at the Heart & Lung Institute, invited me to observe a complicated surgery that included an open maze procedure, in which calculated burns are made to the upper chambers of the heart to block the scattergun effect of uncontrolled electrical signals and channel them through a “maze” that helps them more efficiently signal the ventricle to contract.
My mom and I left the heart symposium inspired and grateful for the opportunity to have a greater understanding of AFib and the cutting-edge options that are available to her should she need them. We both thought sharing that educational journey was a perfect way to say “I love you.”
For information about the Atrial Fibrillation Clinic at St. Joe’s, call 602-406-2651 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.