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“Life goes on”

Brian, an active 69-year-old teacher, was surprised when he was first diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AF). Now he knows that while he’ll have AF for life, that doesn’t mean it’s a ‘life sentence’.

There are many triggers for AF, but lying flat on your back isn’t usually one of them. However, that’s exactly what Brian was up to when his first diagnosed AF episode occurred.

He was lying on the floor, with his legs in the air to ease pressure on his varicose veins, when he felt a tightening in his chest, which also made him cough. As he stood up, he could feel that his heart was racing in an irregular way.

“I thought it would go away, because it has in the past. But it didn’t this time. I waited a couple of hours thinking things would calm down, but they didn’t.”

After a few hours, when his symptoms had not disappeared, Brian went to the local after-hours primary care clinic. The doctor carried out an electrocardiograph (ECG) and told Brian he was in atrial fibrillation.

“It kind of surprised me, because I didn’t think that I’d be a candidate for that.”

Brian was transferred to Christchurch Hospital by ambulance, where eventually he came out of AF. It was a scary experience.

“I felt pretty frightened when I was in it, because you just kind of feel that you are out of control. You feel that things are out of control – you just didn’t seem to be able to come out of it.”

However, Brian's fears dissipated when he realised he was in the best possible place he could be.

“I wasn’t as alarmed or upset as I thought I might have been. I calmed myself down and I realised that I was in good hands and people were doing their best for me. So that was reassuring.”

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

Brian initially found the diagnosis of paroxysmal AF confronting.

“I kind of felt that my body was letting me down, really – that I was being betrayed. I’d looked after myself, I didn’t drink to excess, and I didn’t drink a heck of a lot of coffee.”

But now he’s coming to terms with it. “I’m reluctant to call it a heart condition, but I suppose that’s what it is. My understanding is that it seems to be pretty common and people live with it, apparently for a good long time.”

He’s found support in talking to family and friends about his condition.

“My wife is always very, very supportive of me and is always asking how I feel. She is on the lookout for me, which is good. And my daughters, we’re on Facebook Messenger, and they are always asking after me. So that’s good, there is that support as well,” says Brian.

“The other thing I have done is talked to a few people. I’ve told my employer because he’s a good friend of mine, and had a chat to another good friend of mine. I’ve also had a chat to one or two other people and my immediate family.”

Was it happening before?

Since his recent diagnosis, Brian has wondered if his AF episodes were in fact occurring for some time without him realising. People can live with undiagnosed AF for some time, especially if they’re experiencing few or no symptoms.

“I think I’ve had issues for a long time, but I didn’t really know about it I suppose. When I was 18, I think I had a panic attack of some kind and my heart just raced away like mad. It kind of made me really shy of doing hard physical activity for a time. However, I soon got over that,” says Brian.

“And over the years, I’ve been conscious a couple of times of my heart racing without any exertion on my part. In recent years, I’ve just been conscious of a kind of tightening in my chest under the breastbone. I was never sure what it was.”

Learning to manage AF

Though Brian doesn’t like taking medication, he has conceded to take aspirin and beta blockers to manage his AF. He says the beta blockers aren’t “too bad” but finds the aspirin upsets his stomach, so he plans to look into an alternative option with his doctor.

Brian has continued to cycle on a regular basis – he even rode his bike to the AF clinic the morning after his first episode of AF.

“That quite surprised the young cardiologist, but he seemed quite ok with it and I felt a lot better. And then I cycled home.”

That said, since his AF diagnosis, Brian says he is a little more cautious with his approach to exercise.

“I used to do a little bit of hill work but I haven’t done that, I haven’t tested myself quite as much there.”  

Other lifestyle changes include cutting out caffeine and alcohol from his diet.

“It was hard cutting out coffee, I love coffee. And I like my red wine, but I just feel better for cutting it out. The only thing that I think will be awkward for me, is when I tell people. Like when I go overseas, because we’ve got an Irish family, they like drinking Guinness and stuff like that, so that’s going to be a bit tough. But I think that people just accept it. That’s my impression anyway.”  

Brian has also worked towards improving his sleep and incorporating various relaxation techniques into his daily life – including breathing exercises he discovered on the Heart Foundation website.

“The website has a really good article about belly breathing and I find that really useful. It was just very straightforward, very simple, something that you can do to train yourself for breathing. In the past, I think I’ve been one of those high lung, high chest breathers, and it’s caused light headedness and quite a few things like that.”

Life with atrial fibrillation

One of Brian’s immediate concerns following his diagnosis was whether he would still be able to go on an eight-week trip to the UK to visit one of his daughters.  

“The doctors said, ‘Don’t put your life on hold. Go!’ I guess I’m feeling a wee bit anxious about going away, but I think that if I’m just cautious and follow things I should be ok. I hope to do a little bit of cycling too, I’m going to hire and cycle and do a few days. I think I should be ok, my doctor thinks that it will be fine.”

Brian was also worried about how the condition might impact on his job as a relief teacher.  

“Initially I was concerned about whether I could effectively do what I had to do, but so far it’s been ok. As a relieving teacher, kids often try things on and stuff like that. But I’m lucky, I have one school that I work with, and the students know me now and I get on really well with them, and that’s been good.”

Since his diagnosis, Brian has realised that while AF is a lifelong condition, it’s not going to stop him from leading a full life.

“My understanding is that AF won’t kill you. It’s the possibility of stroke that is the thing you’ve got to be on the lookout for. AF is not the end of the world, life goes on. You can do most of, pretty much everything that you have done before.”


Shared July 2018

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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