Two ablations for Alastair
Alastair’s atrial fibrillation (AF), was diagnosed in October 2016 when his racing heart caused his wife to call an ambulance. Repeated episodes left Alastair drained. Two ablations later his life is back on track.
55-year-old, South African born teacher, Alastair, emigrated to New Zealand in 2004 with his wife and two sons. With no family history of heart problems, he was surprised to find himself feeling faint, and his heart racing.
He first felt symptoms in May 2017 while painting the house. After a nap, he felt better so continued as usual. However, when the symptoms reappeared one evening five months later, Alastair and his wife were concerned.
“All of a sudden, after dinner, I felt faint again,” Alastair remembers. “My heart started racing. I got up, went to my bedroom to lie down and my wife came in. She looked at me and said, ‘You are not right, there’s something wrong with you’. My heart was racing at 100 miles an hour, so she called the ambulance then. They sent out a paramedic, and an ECG machine was used on me. He told me I was in atrial fibrillation (AF) and that was the first time I learnt what AF was.”
Alastair felt so faint that the paramedics took him on a stretcher to the hospital.
AF won’t let up
From then on, Alastair experienced repeated episodes of AF and was referred to Wellington Hospital to see a cardiologist. He was given medication to regulate his heart rate and met the cardiologist who would later perform an ablation on him.
“I met up with probably one of the most wonderful cardiologists around. He was just great in terms of inspiring confidence in me. I think that was the first feeling I had when I met with him, he was so calm and reassuring.
“Being a Physical Education teacher, the most upsetting thing was the uncertainty. The fact that I never knew when it was going to happen. It actually upset my life in such a big way.”
Twice while Alastair was teaching he experienced AF and an ambulance was called.
“The first time it happened at school I kept on teaching because I think sometimes I was just being a male, just being stubborn. I must’ve looked fairly bad because after the first period I sat down and one of the boys came in and he looked at me and said, “Sir – are you OK? Because you don’t look it.”
The chance for ablation
The medication that Alastair had been prescribed had some unwanted side effects.
“The metoprolol and flecainide didn’t work for me because I lost all energy. I’m normally a very energetic person, not just because I work in physical education. I’m always doing a hundred things at a time, and a little bit OCD. Then, all of a sudden with all these chemicals in me, I just couldn’t. My wife said I was a different person.”
Alastair’s cardiologist suggested they try for an ablation to help with the AF episodes.
“He explained to me very clearly that it’s not 100% certain the op will sort it. About 10% of people have to have it done again, and my luck has just been that I was in that 10%.”
During Alastair’s first ablation in August 2017 he was awake while the cardiologist did the procedure.
“It was a surreal experience because I was lying there, and I could actually see my heart on the monitor and live through the whole experience”
Alastair was discharged from the hospital the next day and was back in the classroom the following Monday. However, the next week saw another trip to A&E for Alastair after another AF episode. The ablation, unfortunately, hadn’t worked so he was put on more medication until the next appointment with his cardiologist.
A second ablation happened in March 2018, and Alastair was given a general anaesthetic while the cardiologist worked on his heart for a second time.
“It was another five hours, but after that, I’ve been perfect. No racing of the heart. I’ve been cleared medically and off all medication. The operation was 100% successful. Two months following that I was on blood thinners to prevent my blood clotting but other than that I’ve been fine. For me, it’s close to a miracle”
Reflecting on his life before the second ablation, Alastair remembers being scared to do certain things like drive a car, due to fear his heart would come out of rhythm or he would faint. His illness also affected his relationship with his wife and colleagues.
“On a personal level you can imagine that, with low energy levels, my intimate life disappeared. I just had no energy to be with people and that was just traumatic for me.”
Alastair couldn’t pinpoint any triggers for his AF to come on but could feel when it was going to happen.
“It wasn’t anything that I did, like exercise or getting excited or anything like that. I was able to recognise when I went into AF and having that kind of knowledge was very comforting. I knew when things weren’t OK and I could just sit or lie myself down.
For anyone else in a similar situation, Alistair says that education is key.
“If your doctor or cardiologist is quite open with you ask as many questions as you can think of. With AF as far as I understand it, it’s not lethal if managed properly. It’s not like you’re having an actual heart attack. So yes, for me it was education and having as much knowledge about it and being as open as possible with your health providers.”
Shared July 2019