‘I was only 34’
Published: 8 August 2016
Shawn Walsh would do anything in the world to be free of atrial fibrillation, a type of irregular heartbeat.
Thanks to generous support from people like you, we’re trying to make that dream a reality – if not for him then for future generations – by funding innovative research into this debilitating condition.
Like many young Kiwis, Shawn Walsh set off for London in his early 20s to further his career, see the world and taste adventure.
He never expected his heart to suddenly start playing up. Why would he?
“I was only 34 when it started. I was that typical Kiwi guy who’d always been pretty active and liked to stay in shape."
“But then I went to London, started catching the Tube and stopped moving as much. I probably had a few more beers than I used to but none of that stuff was different from anyone else I was around. All my mates were doing the same thing and they were okay.”
A broken heart
In late 2006, Shawn felt a bad pain in his chest. He got himself to hospital and tests revealed he had a type of arrhythmia called atrial fibrillation (AF), one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing forms of heart disease.
“It wasn’t until I presented at hospital with this chest pain that I was diagnosed, but I’d probably been living with it for a number of months. I was in a ward where I was probably the youngest person by 30 years.
“I was put on drugs to slow my heart rate down and then waited six months for my reboot.”
A ‘reboot’ is electrical cardioversion, a procedure which involves sending an electric shot to the heart to convert an abnormal heart rhythm to a normal heart rhythm.
Shawn has had more than 20 reboots in the past decade, as well as taking countless pills and having ablations to correct his heart rhythm.
“It’s largely been managed with medication, but the drugs have become less and less effective so I’ve gone back into having episodes fairly regularly.
“I had three or four years where I didn’t have any problems at all, but then I’ve been rebooted more than 20 times in the past 10 years.”
What is atrial fibrillation?
“AF’s a bit strange because it’s debilitating but you’re still mentally okay, a fully-functioning 34-year-old who’s just going really slow,” Shawn explains.
“It’s a bit like you’ve just dropped a really big anchor and everything slows you down. I kind of understand what it’s going to be like to be 90 years old and frail.”
So what’s behind the exhaustion and the sudden ‘attacks’ that send Shawn’s heart racing to abnormal levels?
In our heart are two upper chambers known as the left atrium and right atrium. The atrium’s job is to receive blood as it returns to the heart to complete a circulating cycle, whereas the two lower chambers (the ventricles) pump blood out of the heart to start a new cycle.
When someone has AF, their two atrium beat chaotically and irregularly — out of coordination with the two ventricles.
The condition affects about five or six in every 100 people over 65. With our aging population, that means it’s becoming increasingly prevalent. Worryingly, many people are living with undiagnosed AF.
AF is usually not life-threatening but can lead to distressing symptoms which impact adversely on quality of life and occasionally heart failure. In addition, patients are at up to five times more likely than the general population to have a stroke.
Visit our AF website where you’ll find answers to common questions and stories from others living with AF.
Shawn says living with AF is not scary anymore because he knows what’s causing his symptoms – but he still hates it.
“It makes me a bit angry, especially when I’ve been doing everything right. I’m annoyed that it’s still hanging around after three ablations. It can make me a little bit depressed. In fact, if you’re in the wrong frame of mind it can make you quite depressed.”
The condition can also be hard on Shawn’s partner and two teenaged step children, and makes it more difficult to plan activities together.
“It does impact my family life, definitely. I’ll suddenly have to disappear for a whole day while I go through the A&E system.”
New hope for AF patients
Thanks to funding from our generous supporters, we’re currently supporting an innovative research project that aims to find better ways of detecting and treating AF.
Dr Jichao Zhao, from the University of Auckland’s Bioengineering Institute, says the current forms of treatment for AF are disappointing.
“The most common treatments often lose their effectiveness over time and have side-effects. This is largely because we don’t know exactly which parts of the atria are causing AF, which in turn means we don’t know exactly which parts to target through treatment.”
Dr Zhao and his team have been working to find answers by examining real human hearts from organ donors with a history of AF and heart failure, as well as from patients undergoing atrial fibrillation treatment in clinics.
“By studying these atria up close, we hope to be able to pinpoint which parts of the atrial tissue are causing AF. Our aim is to better predict which region is driving AF so we can then potentially target it for treatment,” he says.
“This research is a critical step towards developing new ways of diagnosing AF and finding treatments to cure it. We’re currently aiming to translate our basic research findings to clinical practice through a clinical trial.”
Ten years on from his diagnosis, Shawn is back living in Cambridge and working as an IT professional.
He’s made changes to his lifestyle to help manage the symptoms of AF and improve his health.
“I was a couch potato. My cardiologist had told me I probably needed to lose about 10 kilos to get into my ‘green zone’. I didn’t think I was fat; it was just that classic Kiwi middle age spread. So I did what all good Kiwi men do; I changed nothing in my diet and then wondered why I wasn’t losing weight.
“Eventually, I decided I needed to have a big goal to work towards, so I decided to give the Coast to Coast a crack.”
Shawn started training for the challenge last September and has gradually improved his fitness. In fact, he’s lost 6kg already.
But without much-needed research and new forms of treatment, there is currently now way to cure AF in some people.
“I’ve been living a healthy life for the past six months and I’ve had two or three episodes where I’ve needed to be rebooted,” Shawn says.
“While I’ve had all these ablations, the symptoms are going to come back. The likelihood of me having AF as I get older is quite high.
“If you could fix my atrial fibrillation tomorrow I’d be signing on the dotted line, regardless of what it takes. It’s worth that much to me.”
Please donate to fund more vital research, so we can prevent, treat and cure debilitating forms of heart disease like AF. Together, we can help transform the lives of Shawn, and more than 50,000 other Kiwis living with AF.