The skeptical cardiologist previously shared reader Mark Goldstein’s experience with atrial fibrillation which led him to choose to have an ablation.
Mark has subsequently undergone the ablation procedure and has kindly shared his thoughts and observations on the process. I’ve included a few comments (in green).
The Mystery of Afib and An Ablation
Everyone associated with afib knows how mysterious it seems to be. What triggers it? Why does it stop? Why does it affect marathoners, cross-country skiers, and NBA players more than other groups? Why is everyone’s experience as unique as popcorn granules? Recently Dr. Pearson invited me to talk about my accidental discover of afib, my unsuccessful cardioversions, and my decision to have an ablation.
In the last post, afib was affecting me every day when exercising. Moderate exercise would cause my heart to, as my electrocardiologist would say, “act like a drunken sailor.” It became hard. Exercise is important to me. Medication was not working for me. An ablation was the next step.
Choosing A Doctor
Before you decide on the cardiologist or electrophysiologist (EP) to perform an ablation, do research. Ablations are not particularly dangerous. No one is opening your chest. The doctor is “redecorating” your heart…OK, killing tiny parts of your heart. People occasionally die. There can be complications like infections. How long has your doctor been doing ablations? How many a year? I asked my EP where he learned the technique. Turned out that he learned it from the French doctor who invented it. Peer recognition is good. My EP leads the Atrial Fibrillation Center at the big regional hospital where I had the work. Find out if they are involved in research since this suggests they keep up on the latest developments. I saw that my EP was doing research via the U.S. government’s Medline Plus clinical trial website (https://medlineplus.gov/clinicaltrials.html). And if you are reading about the latest research on the Internet, you can see if your doctor is keeping up with the latest. I asked my EC about a study that appeared days before our appointment. He read it and talked about it. He passed my tests.
(I’ve been meaning to write about a recent study which looked at the early mortality rate (<30 days after procedure) from catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation which was 0.46% among more than 60,000 patients treated for A-fib ablation between 2010 and 2015. These real-world rates are higher than those reported in randomized trials. This doesn’t necessarily make ablation a “dangerous” procedure but patients should know that there is a 1 in 200 chance of dying from it.)
Interestingly, and relevant to Mark’s point about choosing an EP who does a lot of ablations per year, mortality rate was higher in low volume hospital (<21 ablations per year). These data support choosing a high volume operator in a high volume hospital.
Once you choose a doctor, the remainder is scheduling and insurance paperwork. My experience is that you should assume at least a day in the hospital and a day to recover.
I arrived early the day of the procedure. After my previous cardioversions I was experienced with the registration and prep process. A few hours later I was on a gurney entering “mission control.” The procedure room was full of large TV’s, reminding me of launching a rocket. It can be a bit intimidating, but I thought of it as a sports bar. Instead of watching games people were watching my heart. It wasn’t a long time in the room before I was told I’d be sleeping soon.
They were right because I “woke up” about four hours later in a recovery room. I immediately saw my heart rate was in the 70’s and steady. That was good. I put on my Apple Watch and started the ECG test. Without waiting for the watch to decide, I could see my beats were rhythmic. YEAH! I saw “normal sinus rhythm” on the watch and celebrated. Later I found out that I had almost four hours of a successful ablation. Apparently, that is a lot of work however the afib, aflutter, was gone.
After the procedure I felt pressure around my heart. Not surprising considering the “redecorating” that was done. It was more of an annoyance than painful. That lasted for a few days. The area around my groin was also sore from the insertion of the ablation instruments. Certainly not unbearable but not fun. A couple of hours after the procedure I asked if I could go for a walk. The staff accompanied me for a walk and saw that I was fine. I asked if I continue walking. After a mile of moderate walking around the hospital (thanks to the Apple Watch’s measurements), my groin felt much better. When my watch showed I walked three miles, I went to bed. The following morning before breakfast, I walked another three miles. After ablation, start walking as soon as you can. It helped me physically and probably more important mentally showing that I was OK.
My groin area was purple for about a week so the worst part of the ablation was I couldn’t wear a Speedo (nor did I want to wear one). It was ugly and a minor nuisance but didn’t affect my activities. Oddly the second day after the procedure I woke up feeling the aftermath of cramps in both of my calves. This was bothersome walking stairs especially. I hadn’t heard of cramps associated with an ablation so it may just have been coincidence. The next day I could walk fine.
Post-Ablation Early Recurrence
My heart was fine after the ablation. I checked it regularly with my Apple Watch and Kardia Mobile EKG. Life was good until 1:55AM a couple of weeks after the ablation. I was sleeping. Without explanation my heart rate jumped from 53 beats per minute to 110 in five minutes. When I woke hours later, I knew my heart was racing. The Kardia Mobile showed I had a “uncategorized” problem. It stayed around 110 beats no matter what I was doing. A few hours later my EP saw my EKG chart and said I needed another cardioversion. He reminded me that he told me the first time we discussed ablation that during the first three or four months I might have more rhythm problems as the heart returns to normal. He was right.
A few days later I had my third cardioversion. My heart immediately went from 110 back to 60/70 beats per minute after the procedure. Yeah! I was beating normally again.
One Month After Ablation
Today is a month after the last cardioversion. My Apple Watch, Kardia Mobile, and body tell me I am fine. The other metric I check regularly is my heart rate while sleeping since it should reflect my heart rate without activity. I’m averaging 54 beats per minute at night which is fine. I can now exercise moderately or intensely. I am celebrating by writing this article.
I continue to take a blood thinner because of my CHADS₂ score. Hopefully my afib adventure is over…but I will not be surprised if it returns.
So far, so good.
Hopefully, Mark will remain free of afib for many years if not a lifetime but given that he is empowered with both a Kardia 6L device and an Apple Watch for monitoring his rhythm I feel confident he will know when and if it returns.
N.B. Here are the charges for the ablation procedure.
Hospital – 86,350
EC/EP – 7,365
Anesthesia – 4,550
Blood test – 120
Misc charge – 22
Mark ended up paying $200 out of pocket.
Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the Washington, DC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com