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Learning to live with atrial fibrillation

Two years ago, keen cyclist Kara began to experience heart symptoms during a ride on the slopes of Mt Taranaki. She tells of her surprise heart diagnosis and how she's learnt to manage her condition.

49-year-old Kara never had much reason to worry about her heart – after all, she didn't have many of the usual risk factors. The keen cyclist had no history of heart disease in the family, never smoked, and always kept fit and healthy.

So, she wasn't too concerned when she began to feel unwell while cycling to the summit of Pukeiti, a rainforest on the slopes of Mt Taranaki. But one of the friends she was cycling with, a doctor, thought otherwise.

Sudden onset of irregular heart symptoms

After checking Kara's pulse, he suggested she might have an atrial fibrillation (AF) episode. In this condition, the heart doesn't beat in a regular rhythm.

"He told me, 'You're not biking home. I'm calling an ambulance.' And, of course, I said, 'Yeah, nah, I'm biking home.' So off he goes and comes back and says, 'We've called an ambulance'. I felt so stupid, but I duly went in the ambulance." 

Atrial fibrillation diagnosis confirmed

Once at the hospital, Kara was connected to an ECG monitor, and the doctors soon confirmed her friend's initial assessment. She was having an episode of AF.

"It was really interesting when they started explaining the machines and how they read the graphs. They showed me how you could identify atrial fibrillation by looking at it. That was quite fascinating.""

A few weeks after the episode, Kara was at the cardiology department at Waikato Hospital, where she'd been referred for further assessment.

A treatment plan prescribed

Her doctors indicated it was highly likely that she would need to have an ablation. This procedure uses a catheter to destroy (ablate) the area inside the heart that is causing the abnormal rhythm. She was also prescribed medication to take if she experienced further episodes.

Kara says that, for some reason, she was really nervous about taking the medication prescribed. After two or three months, she still hadn't used it, despite having further AF episodes.

"My friends were telling me that I was actually being stupid, and doctors prescribe it for a reason," Kara recalls.

Bad reaction to the medication

The next time she experienced an episode, she took the medication as prescribed but unfortunately began to experience some side effects.

"I was feeling extremely nauseous and disorientated, and I almost felt I was apart from my body. I really couldn't function. It affected my vision, and I was having issues standing and walking."

Finally, she went to the hospital, where she was monitored for five hours before being discharged home.

Looking for answers

After Kara's experience with the medication, she began feeling a bit lost about her heart condition, mainly because she'd always been so fit and healthy. She was also unsure about having the ablation.

"I talked to the cardiac nurse here in New Plymouth, and she recommended that I get a second opinion by going to a private cardiologist in Auckland. So that's what I did," she explains.

Kara underwent a range of tests that showed that aside from AF, her heart was in good shape.

Kara's episodes of AF varied from 2 or 3 a week to nothing for 6 weeks, so she could keep her risk of stroke low without going on blood thinners.

"The cardiologist [in Auckland] said he'd rather medicate than do an ablation. But he said I was at very low risk of stroke, so they didn't even put me on blood thinners," says Kara. "I'm so grateful that I got a second opinion."

Living with atrial fibrillation

One way Kara has learnt to successfully manage her condition is by identifying her AF triggers.

"Some triggers are if I am feeling tired, hungry or have too much sugar. Food like chocolate, lollies, and highly processed food is an absolute no for me now, though I rarely ate them previously.

"I've never been a drinker, but if I had the odd glass of wine, that would trigger it too. I've changed a lot of what I do and eat to try and help the situation. Stress is a big one. Not just physical stress but also mental stress. I have now changed my lifestyle regarding my job and focus a lot on my mental health, including meditating, which has been incredibly helpful."

She can still undertake her regular exercise, including her long bike rides – although she finds it helpful to stay hydrated using an electrolyte drink.

Kara says that despite her AF, life is amazing. She says it was talking to a friend a few years younger with atrial flutter that made her feel she wasn't alone in this and realise that there are others with the same issue. She has discovered that atrial fibrillation is a common heart condition and that, for many people, it goes undiagnosed.

"Obviously, for me and my age, it's more uncommon to have it, but I certainly don't let it define who I am. I can still go out and do a 100km bike ride with ease. It's about learning and accepting it; just don't let it define who you are." 

Fundraising for the Heart Foundation

Kara's next challenge involves riding the length of New Zealand in March 2023, covering 3,000km on a mountain bike in 30 days. You can support Kara on this epic journey by helping her fundraise at

Kara Northcott appears as a tiny figure on a bike in a hilly landscape. She is wearing full cycling gear.


Shared January 2023

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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1 Comment

  • Ora 18 April 2023

    I spent a night in Auckland hospital 2 years ago with the same complaint and since then been very good as I am in my late 80’s.
    Thank you for the information and will follow through with what I have read.