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Staying positive with atrial fibrillation

Despite a family history of heart disease, Phillip’s recent AF diagnosis came as a surprise. Now he’s doing everything he can to ensure it doesn’t rule his life.

The first time Phillip had any idea there might be a problem with his heart, was as a result of a routine, unrelated medical procedure.

“I have a genetic condition called haemochromatosis,” Phillip explains. “Every three months I have a venous section at the blood service in Tauranga. A year ago we went there and they wouldn’t venesect me because I had an irregular heartbeat. So that was the first time I knew this was an issue for me.”

At the time Phillip wasn’t too bothered by what he believed to be an isolated event. “It wasn’t very serious. They called the consultant, he said: ‘Make him wait for 15 minutes and see what happens.’ Fifteen minutes later my heartbeat was regular again and I was able to be venesected. So that was the first time I ever had any indication that there was some issue with the organic pacemaker that controls my heart.”

A second incident, approximately eight months later, was to prove a little more serious. “At 10 o’clock in the morning I noticed that my heart seemed to be beating a bit quickly. It was just a funny feeling and it didn’t really concern me all that much, but it kept going all day. When I went to bed I noticed it was beating quite rapidly. I slept a bit, but by 1 am it was pounding away and very fast and that was when I thought I need to do something,” says Phillip.

He called the 0800 helpline and the nurse advised him to go to AE or see his GP urgently in the morning. While Phillip wanted to wait until the morning, his partner convinced him otherwise.

Once at A&E, it took just a few minutes for the medical team to check Phillip over and deliver the news that he had atrial fibrillation. The team then set about trying to return his heart to its normal rhythm.

“They tried twice to restart my heart chemically without any success. There was a period about 4 o’clock in the morning when they were very concerned. My blood pressure dropped to about 60/20. My pulse was still banging away quite rapidly and it was very erratic. It was supposed to be conforming to a sinus wave and it was not doing that...”

Luckily, however, his heart righted itself a few hours later. At 10.30am the nurse told Phillip he’d had a spontaneous return to the sinus rhythm. After a few more hours of observation Phillip was discharged and drove himself home.

The aftershocks

“That was the first time I knew I had a serious problem,” Phillip says. “Since then I’ve had a few occasions where it has been a little worrisome but it’s self-corrected within a few hours...”

Phillip admits that initially he wasn’t too worried by his AF diagnosis. But after reading Heart Foundation literature about the condition and learning from other people living with it, he began to think again. “A few days after the event I started thinking that maybe I thought I was more bulletproof than I am - even though my family has a pretty terrible history of heart issues. I did start to feel that I’d been let down by my heart.”

That feeling was made more acute when he had further episodes. “After about the third episode then I started to feel like, hey my heart really is letting me down. And I thought my body would never let me down in this way.”

Lifestyle changes

Since then Phillip has made a couple of lifestyle changes in an attempt to keep the episodes under control. He recognises that stress is a significant contributor to his condition.

“There was one episode I had that was definitely stress-related. I had a lot going on that particular day and I went to bed feeling pretty upset. I couldn’t sleep and the irregular heart beat started. In my mind the two are totally linked. I can’t always control it, but I know that stress is a big, big negative in my life and I need to try to prevent it from occurring if I can.”

As well as managing his stress levels, Phillip has also reduced his drinking. “My cardiologist said, ‘It’s a poison.’ He said, ‘If you want to do something good, then that’s the key thing.’”

Maintaining his exercise regime has also been important, with Phillip regularly completing a 3.5 kilometre walk in his lunch hours. “I don’t do a lot of strenuous exercise but I walk a lot and I haven’t changed that. I haven’t let the AF incident impact on my walking at lunchtime.”

Coming to terms with daily medication

Possibly the biggest impact on Phillip was the introduction of daily medication – something which initially he was very resistant to. At first he had hoped that, with lifestyle changes, he might be able to avoid the anticoagulant and beta blocker he’d been prescribed. And, a few months ago, following extensive consultation with both his GP and consultant he tried coming off them.

“My consultant and I talked about it extensively. Every time we met, he wrote a letter which included everything I’d said about why I didn’t want the medication, and the results of my ECG and blood pressure test. Then my GP got that letter. So there were two health professionals I talked to quite extensively.”

His partner did not agree with his choice, however, and Phillip himself was aware that his decision bore risks.

“I have a colleague and one of her relations had an episode, was recommended medication, didn’t take it and then 18 months later ended up in hospital and almost died. His view is that if he had taken the medication when it was recommended he never would have ended up in the situation he’s in now. You’ll always find both sides of the story.”

At the time, Phillip was also aware that he might need to go back on medication in the future. As it turned out, that event was to occur sooner than he expected. A few months ago he had something of a wake-up call.

“I woke as usual to the alarm at 5.45 am, but this time the alarm seemed to set my heart racing,” he explains. A trip to the GP revealed he had a heart rate of 160 and was in AF.  The GP sent him straight hospital, where he remained for the next seven hours. 

The incident was enough to convince Phillip to take medication again. Before being discharged, a cardiologist strongly advised him to take the anticoagulant and beta blocker he’d been prescribed and Phillip agreed. “Recent events have changed things a bit,” Phillip admits. “It's a good lesson actually, proving that things can change rapidly.”

Staying positive

Phillip says it’s important to focus on staying positive. And he thinks the support of fellow AF sufferers is of great assistance, particularly when the going gets tough.

“I mean you can talk to your partner but it’s good to have someone who knows what you’ve actually been through and what you’re actually going through at that moment. That would be a good person to talk to.” 


Shared May 2017

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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