It is not unusual for someone to tell me that their heart “skips” on occasion, or they feel it “flip-flop” in their chest and move on.  Typically they tell me it is only when they drink caffeine, or have too much alcohol the night before.  While this is never considered normal, on occasion it can be considered harmless.  Some people also have episodes where their heart beats very fast, while at rest.  That’s where my story enters stage right.cardiac arrhythmia

I have always been an active person, playing sports and typically running non-stop.  I still remember the spring day in 2002, when I was changing after a long bike ride.  Sitting on the bed, wondering if I would wear my Teva’s or Chuck Taylors, my heart slipped into overdrive.  I called my roommate Nick over (an EMT), and he felt my pulse, confirming that this was indeed not natural.  As I was a pilot at the time, I rented a plane and flew home to Indiana that weekend to have my heart examined by a cardiologist friend of my fathers.

I had a full cardiac exam- the works: stress test, ECG, full blood analysis and ultrasound.  Dr Larry Rink (previous Olympic medical director, current Indiana University team physician) could find nothing wrong with me.  I was sent home with an ECG monitoring device, and told that this was most likely SVT (supra ventricular tachycardia) and that it would not go away.  It wouldn’t kill me either.

Having your heart go from a resting rate of around 50 to over 200 while sitting still, is a bit unnerving.  I was told that “this just happens”, and it was hard to believe.  I continued to have episodes, none lasting more than two minutes.  I learned that I could “reset” my heart by bearing down (valsalva) or rubbing my carotid artery.  I found that meditation and deep breathing exercises were extremely useful.  I also found that caffeine, alcohol and abrupt physical movements (think soccer or Frisbee) could set off an episode.  I never, ever felt completely comfortable.  I quit climbing mountains.  I quit bike racing.  I quit adventure traveling.  I quit doing anything that took me far from civilization.  I was always worried that my heart would go into overdrive, and I would not be able to bring it back to normal.

In October of 2013, that is exactly what happened.  It was a cold, dreary fall day.  I set off for a bike ride in the early morning, bundled up for a typical fall ride.  Early into the ride I decided to sprint to make a yellow light, and proceeded to climb the hill following the light.  As I got to the top, I realized my heart rate was excessively high for the effort.  I soft -pedaled the downhill, hoping that my heart would slow and I could continue the ride.  It didn’t.  Instead, I felt lightheaded and was extremely aware of irregularities in my heartbeat.  I pulled over to the side of the road and tried my usual ways to reset my heart rate.  Nothing worked.  I was cold, shaking and very worried about my future on this earth.  I called 911.

The ambulance arrived, and I was loaded onto a stretcher.  It was cold, cloudy and drizzly.  I stared up at the dreary autumn sky, strapped down, bare to the waist and shivering.  This was definitely not like my previous episodes.  Through chattering teeth I explained my history as ECG leads were stuck to my chest.  I took comfort that the siren and lights were off as we drove to the hospital.

My most pressing memory of this time was how cold I was.   When your heart does not pump life-giving blood as it should, tissues get cold and weak.  I lay on a gurney with 10 blankets, an IV in each arm.  A cardiac x-ray revealed cardiomegaly- an enlarged heart due to exercise.  The ECG revealed SVT.  Finally I had recorded, definitive proof of what ailed me.  Unfortunately for me, the ECG also revealed that my heart had gone into atrial fibrillation.  This is not good.

I was released that night, with a prescription for a beta-blocker to control my cardiac rhythm.  I kept on my medication for 2 days, and went to see an electrophysiologist (EP).  This is a specialist who deals with the electrical pathways of the heart.  As I checked in, a nurse placed leads on my chest to record my heart rate.  Immediately alarms sounded and a covey of nurses entered the room.  Apparently, the medication had brought my already low heart rate to about 30 beats per minute.  I didn’t care,- when it was this low I knew it was unlikely to go into SVT.  Follow-up appointments always had the same result.  The EP explained that my arrhythmia was easily cured through a procedure called catheter ablation.  Heart surgery sounded scary.  I went home to think about things.

Several months went by, and I gradually went back to my normal routine.  After a period of time, I mostly forgot my experience in October.  Mostly.  It was due to the arrival of our second child, Emmaline Hope, that I decided to seek the opinion of another EP.  This time, I went to the Kaiser facility at Rock Creek.

As usual, I was the youngest person on the cardiology floor- by about 30 years.  I had a nice visit with my EP, expressing my concerns and fears regarding catheter ablation.  We discussed several notable athletes who had had the same procedure and returned to competition shortly after.  We talked about the risk of death and possibility of having to have a pacemaker installed.  We talked about how my life had changed as result of my SVT.  I had read the studies on the procedure, and I trusted this doctor.  We made a plan to correct it.

Catheter ablation is a miracle of modern medicine.  During the procedure, several tiny wires are inserted into the veins and arteries of your groin, and pushed through till they reach the heart.  Lying on a special diagnostic table, the doctor uses a variety of means to try and get the heart to beat in its irregular pattern.  Once this rhythm begins, the area where the abnormal electrical signals originate is located.  This is where it gets really crazy- the tip of the wires in the heart now create a radio frequency that burns off this area of the heart.  Once this area is gone, the problem is solved.  Typically, patients are back to work a few days later.

Not surprisingly, driving to the hospital on a very early Friday morning I had my doubts and wanted to turn around and crawl back into bed.  I didn’t.  I was admitted to the hospital, and 3 hours later I was lying in a bed, holding my daughters and laughing.  The procedure had been a success.  In fact, a HUGE success- I was CURED!

If you have flips or flops of your heart, if it skips a beat, or if you feel your heart on a regular basis, that’s not normal.  Do yourself a favor- have it checked by a cardiologist.  If you need a recommendation- contact a Longmont chiropractor, We know some great ones.