One of the joys of writing this blog is the communication it allows me with discerning individuals and patients across the planet. One such reader, Mark Goldstein, discovered he was in atrial fibrillation after purchasing an Apple Watch 4.
He now utilizes both the Kardia Mobile ECG and the Apple Watch to aid in his personal monitoring of his atrial fibrillation and has been actively pursuing a rhythm control strategy under the care of his electrophysiologist.
I asked him to share with my readers his experience which recently culminated in an ablation.
What follows is his description with my editorial comments in green.
December 2018 I bought a crazy, expensive Apple Watch. That watch may have saved my life. I spend much of my days at a treaddesk (a combination desk and treadmill). I was curious to find out how much exercise I was doing. I bought the watch, put it on, and starting walking as I do almost every day. Two hours later the watch had an alarm. It was warning me about something called “atrial fibrillation,” It said, “your heart has shown signs of an irregular rhythm.” What! I never heard of afib before. I quickly learned about it. Heart palpitations, no. Pain/pressure in the chest, no. Sweaty, faint, dizzy, etc., no, no. no. I checked the box for tired but I assumed it was because of the amount of exercise I was doing.
The next day I was fortunate that I had a physical scheduled a year ago. I told my doctor that my “crazy, expensive watch” thinks I have afib. My doctor laughed, telling me about how he had checked and probed every part of my body for the last 20 years (the probing part I remembered well). As the exam was concluding, he was puzzled by the afib warning so he grabbed my wrist to check my pulse. A few seconds later he was asking the nurse to give me an EKG. Darn, the watch was correct (and for me it was correct 99% of the time when I had afib and when I was normal – praise to Apple).
(This is a great example of how atrial fibrillation can be missed by the routine office physical examination. Some patients, especially those with non-rapid heart rates (due to rate slowing meds like beta-blockers or to intrinsically slow conduction of electrical impulses) are minimally symptomatic and their pulses don’t feel that irregular. Because the first symptom of afib can be stroke I am an advocate of screening)
Shortly I got to meet a cardiologist (like Dr. Pearson, they are all nice people). Another EKG, afib confirmed. As we were talking about my symptoms or lack of symptoms, he said that afib was a bit like Eskimo’s describing snow. Each snowflake is unique and each afib patient is unique. I was in persistent afib. Probably had been in this state for two or three years since my heart rate jumped while sleeping, exercising, and at rest.
(Each afib experience is unique but not all cardiologists are nice people. Mark has been fortunate.)
The treatment plan was a cardioversion, an electrical shock to the heart, or as my cardiologist described it “like rebooting a computer.”
As a tech person, I understood that. The risk of not fixing my afib was five times the likelihood of a stroke. The risks were minimal so I chose the cardioversion.
(A common misconception is that ablation or cardioversion eliminates or substantially lowers the risk of stroke in afib. This is not the case. I’ll devote a future post to delve into this issue.)
Cardioversion one lasted four days before my Apple Watch started to detect afib.
(I’ve described in detail how helpful patient utilization of personal ECG monitoring is in letting me know the rhythm status of patients prior to and following cardioversion here.)
The cardiologist next step was cardioversion two along with a drug to help with rhythm control. Number two lasted a month before I saw my heart rate jump again. I thought something was wrong even though my watch was not detecting afib. Another EKG, this time the result was aflutter. The cardioversions were indeed like a reboot of the computer. If you have a virus on your computer, a reboot may be a temporary fix but eventually the virus will return.
(There are many drugs whose purpose is to suppress the recurrence of atrial fibrillation. Mark was prescribed the extended release version of propafenone, a Type IC antiarrhythmic drug (AAD) similar in efficacy and side effects to flecainide. Type IC AADs should only be used in patients with normal left ventricular function (which was demonstrated in Mark by an echo) and without significant coronary artery disease (typically proven by a negative stress test).
To Ablate Or Not To Ablate
Now I got to meet an electrocardiologist. He said my afib would return and recommended an ablation. He said it was unlikely to be a permanent cure but it would help.
The aflutter disappeared after a day or so. I thought my afib was gone too but should I have an ablation? Ablations are relatively safe but since I was afib free why have the procedure?
I purchased the new Kardia Mobile six-lead portable EKG, a miracle of technology. Highly recommended for peace of mind. Just like my watch, I was seeing normal sinus rhythm. So why get an ablation?
A cardiologist had a YouTube video talking about the decision to have an ablation or any medical procedure. How will it affect the quality of your life or the quantity (how long will you live). This was a simple analysis and I like simple. I heard from my cardiologist that the evidence is that an ablation will unlikely extend my life nor will it reduce my lifespan. It was likely to not affect my lifespan. I confirmed this via independent research (be an informed patient, your outcomes will be better). See Dr Pearson’s articles about the CABANA study and the scientific evidence on ablation). So an ablation and quantity of life were neutral.
Importance Of Quality Of Life
Quality of life was more interesting. Could I do the things wanted to do with my life? Did afib affect my day-to-day life? Could I walk up a couple of flights of stairs without breathing hard? Was I getting tired at 10AM? Could I exercise? At the time, the answer was easy. I could do everything I wanted to do. The afib affect was just about zero except for blood thinner drugs which I suspect I will take forever. No ablation.
Then “the day.” I woke and checked my sleep app on my phone. Heart rate at night jumped. Hmm! I went to the gym. My heart rate while walking jumped too. I did 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise and my heart rate monitor said 205 beats per minute. My heart was beating so hard I had to sit for five minutes. I knew something was wrong. Then I climbed a couple of flights of stairs, something that would never bother me. I felt a shortness of breath. I knew my afib was back. I also knew that the quality of my life was now being affected. I could not do things I wanted to do. My watch and Kardia Mobile EKG confirmed what I knew.
I called my electrocardiologist and scheduled an ablation. He was right. Afib would return.
(Mark tells me that he was taken off his propafenone one month after the second cardioversion because “the PA said I no longer needed it since I was in sinus rhythm.” My practice would have been to continue the propafenone as long as well tolerated and effective in suppressing afib recurrence. In my experience, the recurrence of Mark’s afib may not have been a failure of medical therapy. I treat patients similar to Mark by continuing the anti-arrhythmic drug since the minimal risks are lowered by regular monitoring and I regularly see maintenance of SR.”)
(Other antiarrhythmic medications were mentioned to Mark but as they required a 3 day hospital stay he was not interested.)
Stay tuned: Part two Of Mark’s post will be about the ablation procedure which he recently underwent.
Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the WashingtonDC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhgoldstein/