Former television journalist Marcia Fluer is used to being on the go.
Even a stress heart attack in 2000 didn’t slow her down for long. By the time she was in her mid-seventies, however, she noticed that she became tired and winded more easily than before. She assumed it was all a normal part of getting older.
But in 2013, during a routine cardiac stress test at age 76, Fluer got a nasty surprise.
“The technician came running into the room and said: ‘Stop the test—she has atrial fibrillation,’” Fluer remembered. “It was quite a dramatic moment.”
Atrial fibrillation, sometimes known as AFib, is the most common heart rhythm problem in adults. The condition occurs when the electrical signals that tell the heart muscle when to contract—or “beat”—begin to misfire. This interrupts the heart’s normal rhythm, by causing the heart’s upper two chambers—the left and right atria—to fibrillate, or contract irregularly and quickly.
“Atrial fibrillation affects quality of life. Patients can experience heart palpitations, shortness of breath and lack of stamina,” said University of Minnesota Health Cardiologist Lin Yee Chen, MD, MS, FAHA, FACC, FHRS. “The condition increases the risk of stroke. It is also associated with a higher risk of cognitive decline, dementia and sudden cardiac death.”
Atrial fibrillation can be treated with medication, but medication alone may not effectively control the symptoms for some people. The medications can also cause side effects that prevent others, including Fluer, from using them.
Fortunately, there is another alternative: a minimally invasive procedure called a medical ablation.
During an ablation, a cardiologist threads a thin tube called a catheter through the body’s blood vessels, beginning at the groin and eventually entering the heart. When the catheter reaches the correct location in the heart, the physician activates an electrode at the tip of the catheter. The electrode uses heat or cold energy to scar a small portion of the heart tissue. This scarring stops rogue electrical signals from interrupting the heart’s rhythm.
In 2013, Chen performed a catheter ablation to treat Fluer’s atrial fibrillation. She received a second ablation later that year to correct an atrial flutter, a condition that is common among patients with atrial fibrillation. The procedures did not completely eliminate Fluer’s atrial fibrillation or atrial flutter, but they reduced the frequency of her episodes.
“Reducing the atrial fibrillation burden—or frequency—is important,” Chen said. “Marcia’s symptoms improved, and follow-up testing shows that her heart function has improved from 2015 to 2017.”
After the ablations, Fluer experienced less shortness of breath. She manages her stroke risk with medication and lives an active lifestyle. Today, the 82-year-old keeps busy with her family, husband of 51 years Philip Zaugg, their three sons and eight grandchildren.
She spends time gardening, knitting, sewing, crafting and doing various projects around the house. She also enjoys traveling, and loves to go out to dinner and a movie every week.
“Dr. Chen treated me like a human being with a brain,” Fluer said. “He explains things to me, we make decisions together and then we make a plan.”
Chen and other University of Minnesota Health experts also recognize that preventative care is also an important component of heart health.
“We are focused on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease by encouraging our patients to make lifestyle modifications. Healthy behaviors can improve a patient’s ability to maintain normal heart rhythm, which also improves outcomes,” Chen said. “In addition to offering advanced technology, we work to address the root causes of atrial fibrillation.”“I feel like I’m in very good hands with Dr. Chen, and that he cares what happens to me,” Fluer said. “That’s the best thing you can say about a doctor.”