Atrial Fibrillation Month calls attention to silent killer
TEMPE – One night June 2010, Zach Lindsay did what many of us might do before bed: He had a cold drink of water.
Ten minutes later, he felt terrible.
“I had a lot of pressure on my chest and felt woozy, so I woke up my fiancee and asked her to take me to the emergency room,” Lindsay said.
His heart rate was 170 beats per minute. The normal range is 60-100.
Lindsay was diagnosed with a heart rhythm problem called atrial fibrillation – or afib for short. Sometimes called the silent killer because if often goes unnoticed, afib puts people at risk for heart attack, stroke and dementia.
At 30, Lindsay was young for afib, which typically afflicts those ages 45 to 55.
“It was really scary,” Zach said. “I was always living in fear. The docs told me the cold drink probably triggered my afib, so I drank everything at room temperature.”
September is National Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, calling attention to a condition that affects 2.2 million Americans.
The designation is the work of Mellanie Hills, a Texas woman – and afib sufferer – who persuaded Congress to make the declaration five years ago.
“It’s so important to get the word out,” Hills said from her office in Greenwood, near Dallas. “Being in afib puts people at risk for all kinds of bad things.”
Hills started StopAfib.org to help patients, their families and their doctors find the latest information.
Zach Lindsay found Hills’ site and exchanged information with her. Even though he was scheduled to have surgery in San Francisco, he canceled it after Hills suggested he meet with Dr. Wilber Su, a Phoenix electrophysiologist who’s at the national forefront of surgical afib procedures.
“There are great solutions, but if the patients don’t know about them, they can’t be helped,” Dr. Su said. “The patient has to be an advocate.”
Dr. Su performed minimally invasive surgery on Lindsay last year, freezing heart tissue that was causing the problem. Lindsay has been afib-free since.
But when Ken Dauth of Sedona landed in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat, he wanted to see if he could control symptoms without surgery.
“At first, my trigger was alcohol,” Dauth said. “So I started looking at what I was ingesting and seeing what I could do to get better.”
Dauth started eating more fish, fruit and vegetables. He lost 70 pounds. Exercise, meditation and acupuncture treatments have also helped, he said.
It’s unusual for people to find a lifestyle solution that helps them manage or stop their afib, Mellanie Hills said.
“We have a saying in the patient community that those with afib are each an experiment of one,” she added. “What works for one person might not work for another.”
In Hills’ case, minimally invasive surgery to remove some tissue that was causing her heart to misfire worked after treatment with blood thinners failed. She has been afib-free for seven years.
Approval of drugs as alternatives to the 50-year old blood thinner Coumadin could bring more competition, lower prices and give patients options, Hills said.
The new drugs are safer because they’re much more forgiving when a patient misses a dose, said Dr. Peter Ott, director of Tucson’s University Medical Center’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Laboratory. But he would like to see afib occur less in the first place.
“The primary prevention for afib is to avoid heart disease and to aggressively manage blood pressure, sleep apnea and obesity,” Ott said.
Zach Lindsay, who since his surgery has become a father to Lily, now 11 months old, said he’s happy to have his life back.
“I don’t have to be scared,” he said. “I’m back to normal.”