Ablation gets Jeff back on his bike

Sports enthusiast Jeff initially wondered how atrial fibrillation would impact on his ability to exercise. However, after a successful ablation, he’s cycling again and coaching his kids’ football team.

Like any keen cyclist in Wellington, Jeff regularly pushed his heart rate to its upper limits – it was unavoidable riding up the steep hills of his home town. But four years ago, when he got a heart rate monitor for his training, he became aware just how high it was going.

“It wasn’t till I got a heart rate monitor and I saw what my heart was doing that I realised something wasn’t right,” Jeff recalls.

“The first time I had a really bad episode would’ve been four years ago, so I was 45. I just put it down to having a really bad day and then forgot about it. But it started happening a little bit more often. About once a week my heart would race up to 240, 250 and wouldn’t come back down unless I sat down. It would take two to three hours to finally come right.”

Jeff found the episodes could be quite debilitating, particularly when it occurred during a bike ride.

“It felt awful. My arms locked up, my neck locked up, and whole body would start to get really stiff and I just felt really nauseous. Sometimes it would happen a wee way away from home, so I was trying to ride home and having to stop every couple of kilometres for my heart rate to at least come down under 200 so I could carry on again.” 

In hindsight, Jeff admits he should have stopped and asked for help.

“Looking back now I probably should’ve just stopped and got a taxi. It was quite often early in the morning and I didn’t want to be ringing my wife to come and pick me up. Also I’d quite often be riding with other people and it would cause them a bit of stress as well, so it wasn’t very cool.”

Other AF triggers

As the episodes were happening more frequently, Jeff also began to notice other triggers.

“Initially it was the cycling that brought it on, but then it started taking over in other parts of my life as well, football and even just with work and stuff like that. Any sort stress or anxiety would set it off. I realised it was probably going to get worse and worse and that’s a catch 22, because the more you’re worried about it, that’s what tends to bring it on.”

Jeff also began to wonder if he had in fact been experiencing these episodes for a number of years.

“I thought back five, six, even seven years ago, about times I’d thought I was just having a really bad day or whatever. And I think I was probably suffering from it then.”

After some delay, Jeff sought help from his GP.

“I probably should’ve gone a bit quicker. I was in denial for a little bit. Looking back, I went quite a few weeks just making excuses for what it could be, until I realised there was a bit of a pattern and that I should probably go and see someone about it.”

AF diagnosis

The doctor was pretty certain Jeff was experiencing atrial fibrillation (AF), but because it was the kind that comes and goes (paroxysmal AF) rather than permanent AF, it took a while to confirm the diagnosis.

“Murphy’s Law, it didn’t happen for two weeks. In the end I took the afternoon off work and went for a ride really close to the medical centre. I found a hill and just cycled up and down it until finally I had an episode. Then I raced into the medical centre and they took a recording of it.”

Once the diagnosis was confirmed, the doctor put Jeff on medication straight away. Jeff also tried cutting out possible triggers.

“I tried all different things. I tried going off coffee, I tried going off alcohol, cutting down on sugar – all sorts of things, but nothing seemed to work. Thank God it wasn’t coffee,” he jokes. “That would’ve been terrible!”

Despite increasing dosages of medication, Jeff continued to have some AF episodes, so doctors decided he was a candidate for a catheter ablation  – a procedure that stops the abnormal electrical signals occurring in the heart.

Quick recovery from catheter ablation

Jeff had his catheter ablation about four months later, which he describes as a ‘bizarre’ experience.

“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it but it was not a bad experience, as far as these things go. It was a little bit surreal to think what they did, it’s amazing really.”

Once over, the recovery was extremely quick and Jeff was soon back on his bike. What’s more he’s experienced virtually no AF symptoms since.

“It’s been brilliant. There’s a chance that 15 or 20 years down the track I might have to have it done again and I’d definitely get it done, after the result I had this time.”

Sharing AF stories

Since receiving his AF diagnosis, Jeff has met many others who share his condition.

“I ended up meeting other people who I didn’t know had AF until I started talking about it. That was really good too because you can share your experiences. Everyone was slightly different but you always had a bit of common ground. There were three or four of the guys I cycle with that had it or had a friend that had it.”

Eighteen months ago Jeff’s mother was also diagnosed with the condition, when an ECG for an unrelated issue picked up an AF episode by chance.

“Obviously she’d been having them and just thought she didn’t feel right and was having a turn or whatever. She’s on some medication now as well, but it doesn’t tend to affect her too much in her day-to-day life.”

Jeff says that while his diagnosis shook his confidence at first, he is thankful AF is a condition that is manageable.

“It definitely knocked my confidence for quite a while, but I always figure too there’s a lot worse things that you can get. I saw other things people were having to deal with and I thought if this is my thing then gee, I’ll take it.”



Shared January 2019

Please note: the views and opinions of the storyteller and related comments may not necessarily reflect those of the Heart Foundation NZ.

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