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Atrial fibrillation diagnosis leads to a healthier life

Sandra Youthed took action after being hospitalised for the heart rhythm condition, atrial fibrillation. She quit alcohol, took up yoga, and lost over twenty kgs. Now she's sharing her story to encourage others to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Sandra's first heart event began with a visit to the dentist – little did she know it would end with a visit to the hospital.

After the dental procedure, Sandra was given antibiotics, which made her feel unwell. She experienced symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting and a racing, pounding heart.

"The antibiotic made me sick, and I think, combined with the dehydration from vomiting and diarrhoea, that set off the atrial fibrillation. Immediately after vomiting, I knew things weren't right," she says.

Although Sandra was unaware of it at the time, in rare instances, certain medications can be triggers for people with heart rhythm conditions.

Sandra and her husband rang Healthline because she could feel that her pulse was all over the place. She describes her heart as "racing, then thundering" before settling back down and becoming weaker.

Healthline put the couple through to the ambulance service. When it arrived, the paramedics ran an ECG on Sandra's heart, confirming atrial fibrillation (AF) and a heart rate of around 170 beats per minute.

An easy call for paramedics

"One looked at the other, and they both said 'Afib', before then explaining to me, 'You're not having a heart attack, but congratulations, you win a trip to the hospital.'"

Sandra was taken to the hospital and given a metoprolol drip to decrease her heart rate. She says she felt much better and even thought, 'Oh great, can we go home now?'

However, the hospital staff weren't keen, with her heart rate still around 150. Sandra was kept in hospital for observation and further tests.

After reviewing her, the cardiologist recommended an electrical cardioversion. This procedure uses quick, low-energy shocks to restore a regular heart rhythm to help with irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias), including atrial fibrillation (AF).

"They ran through the process and the risks, and the thing that stuck in my mind was, 'Your heart could stop'. That was where things got scary. I told my husband I didn't want him in the room while they did it, so he went out. That was probably the scariest part, but it worked."

Covid delays add to an uncertain time

On discharge from the hospital, Sandra was sent away with no medication, something her GP was surprised about.

Moreover, because of Covid-19, her four-week follow-up appointment with the cardiologist was delayed by five months.

Like most people facing a new AF diagnosis, she was unaware of the questions to ask at the time or what to do if it happened again.

"I had no clue about anything. I didn't know when I should go back. I didn't know if I should panic or when I should go to the hospital. So that's why I want to share my story."

Treatment for atrial fibrillation

When she finally got her follow-up appointment, the cardiologist started Sandra on blood thinners (anticoagulant) and metoprolol, a beta blocker that steadies the heart rate and rhythm and lowers blood pressure. He also suggested that weight loss would help her long-term, something Sandra accepted and set about working towards.

"I thought, 'Yes, I can do that', and to date I've lost 22kg, but I still want to lose a little bit more."

She says that admitting her weight to multiple health professionals wasn't easy and that she still doesn't like sharing it, but things are going well with her lifestyle changes.

Discuss your treatment options with your healthcare team

Sandra continued to experience AF, including two more serious episodes, which sent her back to the hospital. However, with talk of doing an electrical cardioversion again, she asked her doctor if it was absolutely necessary.

The cardiologist suggested an alternative treatment called pharmacological cardioversion, which uses medication rather than electrical impulses to reduce the heart rate. Thankfully for Sandra, this was successful.

Sandra then underwent further heart tests and scans and was referred to a second cardiologist.

"Before I saw the next cardiologist, I wrote down some questions," says Sandra. "Looking back, my first experiences weren't great, but maybe I didn't ask the right questions. I advise that when something pops into your mind like I wonder about this or that, write it down so you can ask when you have an appointment."

Lifestyle changes are important for managing atrial fibrillation

One lifestyle change Sandra has made is to stop drinking alcohol. Her cardiac nurse explained that the latest advice was zero alcohol intake for patients with AF. Thinking back, Sandra realised she'd also had a drink or two every time she had an episode.

"I've had zero alcohol since last year, and I've also had zero serious episodes since April last year. I did have one other little episode when I was on holiday and in the middle of nowhere. However, I managed it myself using a couple of yoga poses."

Sandra says she saw in an online chat group that yoga is good for AF and thought, 'Okay, I can do that'. She recalls being a bit embarrassed at first because everybody else in the class was able to sit on the floor and reach their toes.

"I thought, you know, I'm quite a big person, I'm not very flexible, and I've got all these injuries from past accidents, but it doesn't matter. I knew the lady teaching, so that made it a bit easier too."

The ability to manage Sandra's AF symptoms with physical activity when needed was backed up by her cardiologist, who confirmed that breathing work or splashing your face with freezing cold water can have a calming influence on the body.

"I did the downward dog and a forward fold, and it just worked for me. I don't know why it worked for me, maybe it might not work for everyone else. But just knowing that there are things that you can do is great."

"I'm not going to try and kid myself that I won't necessarily ever have another episode because from what I've been told, AF does tend to get worse as life goes on, but I feel like at least I know what I'm doing to make some changes."

Adjusting to life with atrial fibrillation

Sandra says that going from being healthy and never sick to having a heart condition took a while to sink in. Seeing signs saying, 'Do not use if you have a heart condition', also makes her think differently about her heart health. Giving up alcohol was a big change.

"Like a lot of people, I've enjoyed the social aspect of alcohol, for instance, going on wine-tasting weekends away. I can't say the zero alcohol wines taste the same, but the beers and ciders I've tried do," she says.

"I've also gone on a few support groups on Facebook, which is quite a good thing to do. There are heaps of people on there with their own experiences."

Finding your support network

Sandra's advice to others is to find people that support you. For Sandra, it's her husband and family, particularly her sister.

"She's my rock in a lot of ways. She's the one that actually had the hard conversation with me. She was a travel agent, and just before this first episode, she had booked my ticket to go to Australia and had to ask about my weight. She said, 'I don't want to lose my sister.'

"I'm happy to admit that I've lost 22kg now. However, I would like to lose 37kg altogether. She's supported me to get out and do more physical activity like walking."

Sandra's final words of advice to others

"If you want to make changes, you don't have to make them alone. Find someone to support you. Whether it's through the Heart Foundation and their support groups, or you just put it out to Facebook and your friends, make the change."


Find a local support group

Learn more about staying well with AF

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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  • Paul 26 March 2024

    Awesome story of changes ie stop drinking alcohol was a big one for me too. Not that I was a big drinker although definitely alcohol was a negative throughout my life. Eating well on low carb healthy fat diet and fasting eating after 11am lunch and dinner in the evening about 5pm. I have always been competitive and loved sports so easy transition to add regular exercise into my weekly regime. To top it all though my beautiful wife that we have been together for 42 years, is a health coach for the local iwi health support in Te Tairawhiti. She has always been my inspiration and support from the beginning my rock. so beautiful.

  • Brian 28 May 2023

    I can relate to this account. My symptons were pretty much as described in the article. One interesting piece of advice was the one about alcohol. I haven’t been party to the latest advice on this.

  • Merys 26 May 2023

    Hi Sandra,  good on you for helping yourself by losing weight and exercising.  Great you have a positive attitude. Keep up the good work.