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Counting the beat… and how it paid off

Trevor knew his heart skipped a beat long before he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Then, suddenly, the issue he’d lived with for years seemed to escalate dramatically.

Trevor, 68, was just a teenager when he first sensed something wasn’t right with his heart.

“I’d say it goes back to my school days. I was really into my sports and I used to run long distances, but it always surprised me that I’d get puffed very quickly,” says Trevor.

“Then I’d continue being puffed right through the exercise, and if I did something really fast, like a sprint, I’d be gasping at the end of it – whereas for the amount of exercise I was having I should’ve been superbly fit.”

Trevor sometimes checked his resting heartbeat, and quickly discovered it occasionally dropped a beat. “So I was thinking, hello, what’s going on here?”

Though he never went to the doctor specifically for his heartbeat, he brought the issue up “over many years” while at the doctor’s for other reasons: “But, of course, when they checked it – it never did it, did it!”

So it wasn’t until the year 2000 when Trevor was at the doctor’s and mentioned it to him that his GP got his stethoscope out and said "heck, it's doing it right now". At that point, his GP dropped everything and phoned for an ambulance. Trevor was surprised, to say the least.

“So I was in the ambulance, thinking ‘well what’s going on, I mean I’ve been like this for many, many years, why the panic now?’"

“I’m sitting there thinking ‘what’s going on?’ I had my car parked out the front of the surgery and I said ‘Can I go out and move my car around the back?’ And he said ‘no’. The people in the ambulance said the same thing, they wouldn’t let me do anything.

“So I was in the ambulance, straight off to hospital and I’m thinking ‘well what’s going on, I mean I’ve been like this for many, many years, why the panic now?...’” 

The ups and downs of treatment

By the time Trevor arrived to hospital, his heartbeat was “just going crazy – it was going very, very fast at this stage”.

“I suppose the stress of it all was really getting me going,” he says.

His heart pounded erratically for the next two days in hospital, but just as he was being prepared for a procedure that would stop his heart and restart it (cardioversion), suddenly – all by itself – it returned to normal sinus rhythm again.

Trevor was told he had atrial fibrillation and was sent home with medication, which – it turns out – he could barely tolerate. “They (the tablets) just made my fingers and toes absolutely freeze, they’d go so cold I could hardly do anything with them. And if I sat down, I’d just go to sleep. I couldn’t properly function and, of course, driving would’ve been quite dangerous.”

Trevor was still working at the time – as a polytech teacher – and noticed his condition becoming more obvious, whereas before he had been “living with it quite happily, basically unaware really that is was going to come to the fore”.

When his heart specialist tried him on a different medication, he started to feel much better and has since stuck with that – for the past 16 years. He has noticed some side effects such as fleeting “heart pains across the chest” and an increased sensitivity to sunlight, but he says these are side effects he can live with.

“If I go outside I wear sunglasses and a hat, it’s probably not a bad thing anyway, but if it’s a bright day I can’t sit inside the house and face the window or else I end up with sore eyes and a headache.”

Lifestyle and limitations

Trevor’s cholesterol and blood pressure levels had never been a concern, so managing his atrial fibrillation didn’t mean overhauling his diet – he’d always been conscious of what he ate, and still is. “I don’t eat butter, sweets, sugar, salt or anything like that, I haven’t done that for 30 years so my cholesterol is very low and my blood pressure was always quite low too.”

And the former long-distance runner has continued his habit of keeping fit, although age has slowed him down a bit, he says. He no longer goes yachting, but still goes to the gym three times a week. “I start off with about half-an-hour on the treadmill, at seven kilometres an hour. At that pace, he doesn’t notice any impact on his heart, but if he steps up to 10 kilometres an hour and starts to jog, he quickly starts puffing and notices his heartrate go up. “But at least it’s steady,” as opposed to skipping a beat.

“I can’t do heavy work like digging the garden or swinging a pick for very long before I’m puffing and panting, so (the AF) does have that effect,” he adds.

Trevor’s triggers

Trevor’s noticed there are certain things that get his heart racing – and alcohol is one of them. If he drinks more than he should, he can wake up at night and it will be beating heavier.

“I remember one time, oh it must be 18 months ago, I got a bit carried away at a dinner party and ended up drinking a wee bit more than that. That threw me right into a really bad episode where the heart just went berserk… it was about to jump out of my chest, you know, it was just hammering, bouncing and jumping. The best description I think i could say would be like a four-cylinder car engine only firing on two cylinders, so it was really jumping around.

“That’s pretty scary, because you don’t have to take your pulse to notice that – you can just feel it.”

But there are worse things than alcohol, he says: “I think stress, for me, is the worst thing that’s going to set me off if I’m going to have an attack; and the next one would be caffeine.”

To help keep his stress levels down, Trevor’s taken up a musical instrument which he finds “very soothing”. And of course, being retired, there aren’t too many reasons to stress out, he says. As for the coffee “it’s not the end of the world because I just have decaffeinated coffee”.

Should an episode happen, he has some fast-acting medication, as opposed to the slow-release tablet that he regularly takes, which helps bring his heartbeat back to normal.

“So life generally is pretty good…. AF isn’t a huge problem as long as you’re aware of your limitations and, of course, keep taking your medication.”

Trevor considers himself very lucky to have picked up on his skipped heartbeat when he did, before his AF got worse. “So I probably would’ve gone on and on and then walked straight into a heavy bout of it and thought my whole world was going to cave in.”

If he hadn’t taken his pulse from time to time, he never would’ve known he’d had AF at a low level for so many years. “It just sort of makes me realise… it’s not something that might just crop up all of a sudden. It’s something that people might be living with and not be aware of.”


Shared November 2016

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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