Man shares story of fight against atrial fibrillation

Fatigue, rapid heart rate can be symptoms of a serious condition

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For many years, Zach Ward thought his racing heartbeat was because he had too much coffee, exercised too much or got up too fast. In reality, he was suffering from a condition many Americans have without ever knowing — atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

It was not until three years ago when Ward stood up, passed out and hit his head on a dresser that he was officially diagnosed. Had he not been taken to the hospital to look at his head injury, Ward said, he does not know if he would have ever found out about the heart condition.

The ER doctor sent Ward to the hospital, who then sent him to a cardiologist for treatment of a condition 47-year-old Ward is suspected have having for more than 20 years.

“I remember standing up and just could not get enough oxygen,” said Ward, a Castle Pines resident. “I just fell over and completely passed out. Until that day, I had no idea how common AFib really is and how often it never gets treated.”

Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can increase a person's risk of strokes, heart failure and other heart-related complications. During atrial fibrillation, the heart's two upper chambers beat chaotically and irregularly.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the U.S. there are more than 454,000 hospitalizations a year with AFib being the primary diagnosis. AFib is the contributing factor to more than 158,000 deaths per year.

Because AFib symptoms can be subtle, or rationalized as Ward did, they are often ignored. Symptoms of AFib include irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering, or pounding), lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain.

HealthOne physician Dr. Charles Fuenzalida, a cardiac electrophysiologist with The Medical Center of Aurora, said that, like Ward, many people just do not realize the variety of symptoms they are experiencing is due to a serious heart condition.

With September being AFib Awareness Month, Ward said it is important for people to realize how something that seems like a minor symptom that can be blamed on coffee or fatigue can be something serious.

“I would get out of breath walking up a flight of stairs and think it was because I was out of shape,” Ward said. “Had I not hit that dresser, I would have never bothered to go to a doctor about it.”

In treating Ward, Fuenzalida said it has taken several steps over three years to get his heart in a place where he can return to biking and regular exercise.

At first, Ward started taking blood pressure medications and blood thinners. On two occasions, Ward went through a cardioversion procedure.

Cardioversion is a procedure used to return an abnormal heartbeat to a normal rhythm. The problem, Ward said, was that the procedure costs $10,000 every time it must be done, and it is not permanent. Ward went through cardioversion twice.

In treating patients with AFib, Fuenzalida said, one of the biggest concerns is stroke. When a person has AFib, blood can pool in the heart's upper chambers and form blood clots that can break off and travel to the brain.

When medicine and the cardioversion treatments were not working to stabilize his heart, Fuenzalida recommended Ward go through a different procedure called ablation.

Ablation uses small burns or freezes to cause some scarring on the inside of the heart to help break up the electrical signals that cause irregular heartbeats. This procedure allows the heart to return to a normal rhythm.

After having a friend die from AFib, Ward agreed to have the surgery done in the spring of this year. With about a dozen doctors and nurses in the room, Ward said, he was impressed with the technology used to conduct the procedure, with the doctor going through a vein, starting in the thigh, through the lungs and into the heart. The procedure took about six hours altogether.

Now, Ward said he is feeling the difference, and has gotten back to regular exercise and biking without being as worried.

Technology is also helping Ward stay vigilant. Some of the most popular smartwatches on the market can monitor a person's heart rate. Ward said he can constantly monitor his heart rate.

Fuenzalida said he believes smartwatch technology is a game-changer in identifying and diagnosing AFib. Fuenzalida said each year more patients are being referred to heart specialists based on smartwatch data.

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