On New Year’s Eve in December 2012, Paul Hartman was sledding with his daughters and family friends in Duluth. The hills were steep, the night was cold and after a run the sleds were packed two- or three-deep with eager kids waiting for a tow back up to the top, Paul remembers.
“A little while later, I could feel my heart wasn’t right,” Paul said. “It almost felt like a nervous flutter—the kind you feel when you’re 13 and you get your first kiss. I could feel my pulse going too fast and too erratic.”
“A friend staying with us is an ore ship captain and is trained in first aid,” Paul said. “He checked my pulse and said, ‘I think you should go to the hospital.’”
Paul and his family went to a hospital in Duluth, where he was administered an electrocardiogram test. Immediately, the hospital staff recognized Paul was experiencing an episode of atrial fibrillation, a fast irregular heartbeat caused by disorganized electrical signals in the heart.
Atrial fibrillation, or AF, is the most common heart arrhythmia in adults, according to University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist Lin Yee Chen, MD, MS.
Each normal heartbeat is triggered by an electrical signal that passes through muscle tissue from the top of the heart to the bottom, causing a contraction, which in turn pumps blood.
In a healthy heart, that electrical signal begins in a group of cells known as the sinus or sinoatrial node. In patients with AF, the electrical signal that causes AF doesn’t begin in this node, but starts instead in another part of the heart or in adjacent pulmonary veins, Chen said. These signals spread throughout the atria—or the upper two chambers of the heart—causing the chambers to fibrillate, or contract irregularly and quickly.
Advanced age, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity are known risk factors for the condition, Chen said. The condition is linked to a heightened risk for stroke, heart failure and dementia. It can also negatively affects quality of life.
Paul didn’t have any of the risk factors for AF. But one year later, he was eating dinner when he experienced a second episode of atrial fibrillation. The next morning, Paul went into a local hospital in the Twin Cities for a cardioversion—a medical procedure that uses electricity or medication to convert abnormal heart rhythms back to normal.
The second episode was a wake-up call, Paul said. A month later, in January 2014, he had a third AF episode.
“When you think you’re bullet-proof at this age of life, you don’t think about what can happen,” Paul said. “I was scared to death. All of sudden, I started questioning the things I’d taken for granted.”
Paul, an electrician and avid fisherman who frequently goes on fishing expeditions in northern Canada, the Caribbean and other locations, worried the next episode would come when he was far from a hospital or medical care. He decided he needed peace of mind and began gathering information about medical ablations.
During an ablation, a cardiologist may use heat or cold energy to destroy the source of the rogue electrical impulses. In other cases, a cardiologist may isolate the area by ablating tissue around the source, thus preventing the electrical impulses from spreading to the atria, which causes AF.
“For roughly 80 percent of people with AF, the stray electrical impulses originate in the pulmonary vein—so we use radiofrequency (heat) energy to create a barrier of scar tissue around the vein,” Chen said.
After conducting extensive research, Paul chose Dr. Chen to perform the procedure.
“When I was looking, he was the one that seemed to be truly experienced and the best of the best,” Paul said.
In early 2014, Paul underwent a successful ablation. Since the procedure, he has not experienced any episodes of atrial fibrillation. For Paul, that means returning to what he loves: wilderness fishing.
“My big thing is getting out where there aren’t any other people. That’s my happy place in the world. “Now I’m able to get back to focusing on being out there, and being unplugged from the world.”