Re A-Fib: 5 Things I’ve Learned in 10 years… A Guest Post by David Grayson Lees


I’m a 64 year-old road/trail runner, marathoner and weight lifter diagnosed with atrial fibrillation more than a decade ago. I’ve had three ablations and as many cardioversions, plus I’ve swallowed the usual assortment of prescription meds. Now my a-fib has become paroxysmal atrial flutter—about one episode every two weeks or so, usually lasting a few hours—and while my running days seem to be over, I still regularly make it to the gym and I’m discovering the joys of walking and hiking.

Through trial and error—plenty of each, actually—as well as a fair amount of research, I’ve come to a handful of conclusions that may be useful. While I believe them to be true, keep in mind that my observations are true for me; your experience may well be different. Finally, since I’m not a physician, nothing here is intended as medical advice.

And now: 5 things I’ve learned in 10 years of dealing with the always-entertaining world of cardiac arrhythmia.

A-Fib won’t kill you…even though a diagnosis of a-fib—and its symptoms—can be very scary, barring underlying cardiac disease, a-fib is not inherently life-threatening. And so if you have just been diagnosed, relax as best you can.

…but a stroke could. Pay rigorous attention to your anti-coagulation regimen. Even if your CHAD score is zero, at least take a low-dose aspirin every day. Personally, I find Coumadin to be a true pain, what with blood monitoring, dietary restrictions and the like. I much prefer the newer meds, especially Xarelto. It acts quickly, and as an added bonus you don’t have to be continuously concerned with your INR numbers.


Your EP isn’t interested in prevention. Typically, EP’s are all about fixing stuff rather than prevention. Which is weird, because unless you’re on the younger side of 40 and/or your a-fib has been freshly discovered, one ablation usually won’t do the trick. Of course, I’m grateful to my two EP’s, one rated among the best in California and the other acknowledged as one of the best in the world. It’s just that neither one has ever expressed any interest in the contours of my life, including what my exercise habits happen to be, what sorts of supplements I take, or what my days are like. Now, I’m not looking for a new best friend, but it’s clear that for them I’m a unique problem to be solved rather than a unique human being. I’m not angry about it; after all, these docs chose a field in which their major interaction with patients occurs when the patient is unconscious.

Still, I believe the implication is clear: you are pretty much on your own when it comes to figuring out how to modify your life style, exploring vitamin/mineral supplementation, and gathering the latest non-nutsy information.

(BTW, in terms of info, two websites I recommend are Dr. John Madrola and The A-Fib Report. Dr. John is a younger EP who always has a thought provoking take on new developments in a-f treatment and research and The A-Fib Report is a readable compendium of international a-f research, written in lay language. It requires a nominal membership fee that’s well worth it.)


Supplementation could work for you. I haven’t thrown out my beta blocker (Sotalol AF, not regular Sotalol) but along the way I have had excellent results in controlling the frequency and duration of my atrial flutter episodes by supplementing with 200 mg of magnesium citrate in a pill taken at lunch and ¼ teaspoon of potassium citrate dissolved in water taken in the morning and again at dinnertime (Please note: ingesting too much potassium involves some quite severe health risks, so be careful.)

Life is good. But first, the bad news: as near as I can tell, nobody knows what causes atrial flutter. The gang of suspects spans endurance sports (!) to mysterious biochemical mechanisms that somehow encourage the formation of tissue substrates that make the electrical system of the heart go haywire. Researchers—and your EP, too–are just guessing, leaning on statistical correlations rather than employing demonstrable causal connections. Maybe cutting out caffeine will help you; maybe it won’t. Maybe abstaining from demon rum will prove to be the answer; maybe not. Obviously, if you are over-drinking, over stressing (like many of us who are into enduro sports) under sleeping or happen to be engaged in other deleterious deeds, changing your behavior is simply a good idea, a-fib or no a-fib. Just don’t expect that any one thing will be the answer.

The good news is, you can have a great life even with a-fib and a-flutter. No, I don’t love my a-flutter episodes; they are annoying and sometimes, even after a decade, still frightening. I don’t run anymore, but a long walk or a moderate—I know, I know, not my favorite word, either—hike turns out to be a lot of fun. No, I can’t put the same hemodynamic load on my heart that I used to, but I can still work up a nice funky sweat underneath the weight machines at the gym.


Besides, working out is only a part of life. My friendships, relationship with my son, work, and my love life (I’m getting married again, and I’m stoked!) are just as satisfying as ever.

Maybe more so.

Those of us with a-fib or a-flutter aren’t sick, not truly. Nor do we need to afraid.


(Thanks to Linda for the inspiration. Thanks to you for reading.)

Update: Atrial Fibrillation, Pradaxa Fail, Transient Ischemic Episode, Blood Clot in Left Atrial Appendage

Ridgeview Trail - Moore Park

Ridgeview Trail – Moore Park

About two weeks ago I was out for my typical Saturday two hour trail run on Moore Mountain with my dogs. It was a fine day and I felt great, and with about ten minutes left in the run I ran into three of my friends who were out mountain biking. My friend Linda, a Physician Assistant, was trying out her fancy new mountain bike and we stopped to talk for a while. She showed me her new bike and I introduced her to my new dog. I noticed, and commented, that I was having a little trouble getting my mouth working properly. I didn’t have any trouble finding words, or even saying the words, but my tongue just felt sort of thick – especially with consonants like “R” that seem to be made in the back of the mouth. I immediately did my self inventory for asymmetry and muscle weakness and found none. I attributed it to having had one of those little, annoying white sores in my mouth, accompanied by some swollen glands and thought nothing of it.

Linda Cyclecross racing

Linda Cyclecross racing

I finished my run, which involved a fairly technical descent, ate my post-run Clif Bar, and went home where I noticed nothing amiss. I forgot about it until Linda texted me the following day asking how I was doing and saying she was worried about me. I assured her – I was fine!

The next Monday, at work, I thought I’d ask my friend and co-worker, Dr Zakir Ali, if he thought the incident was any reason for concern. Dr Ali is a neurologist who works a couple of days a week at the orthopedic clinic, where I work as a podiatrist.

He wasn’t as dismissive as I was about the incident and said that that was very suspicious for a TIE (transient ischemic episode). A TIE is basically a small, brief stroke, in this case likely caused by a small blood clot that resolves fairly quickly. Dr Ali said I should, at the very least, get an echocardiogram to see if there is a clot in my left atrium, and possibly a carotid artery scan as well.

I have been in permanent atrial fibrillation and on Pradaxa, a potent anticoagulant (blood thinner) for two years and had never missed a dose. I thought he may have been over reacting – and I had had an echocardiogram just two months ago.

But Dr Ali had told me, “You will never regret checking.”

And I agreed.



So I called the on call cardiologist, explained what had happened, and he told me a standard echocardiogram would be useless as it won’t show a clot, and recommended a trans-esophageal echocardiogram, and also a carotid scan (ultrasound).

I mentioned that I had had a trans-esophageal echocardiogram before (in 1994!) and it was like swallowing a telephone. He said he’d get anesthesia involved and we set up both procedures not expecting to find anything.

So the carotid scan came first and was normal, as expected.

Last Wednesday I went to the hospital and checked in to Day Surgery – which was a peculiar and strange experience for me. I’ve been working there, as a surgeon, for the past twenty-five years, but this was my first time being there as a patient. It’s a little disorienting, and oddly embarrassing, to be on “the other side of the door.”

Anyway – Dr Vince Herr, the anesthesiologist, gave me some propofol so I don’t remember a thing; but when I woke up I was told that I had a small clot in my left atrial appendage, and turbulence in my left atrium as well. This was a surprise for everybody involved. Judging from my lab work and the bruises on my arms the Pradaxa seemed to be working – but evidently not well enough! And that “small clot” looked pretty big to me – downright dangerous.

Trail Running on the PCT

Trail Running on the PCT

At that point I was immediately started on Lovenox injections twice daily (for six weeks!), the Pradaxa was discontinued, and I am beginning to take warfarin (Coumadin); and of course I stay on the beta blocker (carvedilol). My cardiologist gave me the first Lovenox injection right in the post-op area.

Also it looks like no running or bicycling for six weeks – which of course is devastating to me, emotionally, but – shit! – blood clot / stroke / potential death – yes, I am definitely sticking with the program!

The injections are easy to do, they burn a bit but don’t really hurt, and every injection leaves a bruise. Believe it or not I enjoy and look forward to each injection because I’m hopeful that they will be helpful.


I’m disappointed that the Pradaxa failed – it is much easier to take that warfarin. Remember that I am a vegetarian and one of my passions is eating healthy food, especially kale. Also everyday, up until now, I eat a little square of nori (seaweed – like the wrapper on sushi) thinking that it would be a good source of iodine as I don’t eat any seafood or use table salt. Kale and nori are probably the two worst foods to eat if you’re taking warfarin!

Taking warfarin is going to be a real challenge – changes will be made, changes that actually seem sort of unhealthy. The one advantage is that warfarin is, unlike Pradaxa, reversible, which is a true benefit in the case of a bike or auto crash, a GI bleed, a head injury, and so on.

Moore Park Trails

Moore Park Trails

In six weeks the trans-esophageal echocardiogram will be repeated and hopefully the clot will be gone. If not some sort of procedure (by the electrophysiologist) is in store for me. Hopefully I will 1.) not die and 2.) get back to trail running. Until then my nerves are wracked worrying about having a major stroke!

I need to say that I feel incredibly blessed – if I hadn’t met my friends and stopped to chat I never would have known I was having a TIE. And if Linda hadn’t have texted me the next day I wouldn’t have ever pursued it, because I had, in my mind, completely dismissed it. And also – how many people actually have a neurologist right in their office who is willing to talk at any time?

Clearly I’m not through this yet – but in a way I feel I have already dodged a bullet. Really, if it weren’t for Linda that blood clot would have just kept getting bigger and who knows what would happen next? I might be dead by now. Even as it is now – who knows? But at least now I know I have a problem and the treatment plan has been changed.

So thanks, Linda!

Me and Linda in Costa Rica

Me and Linda in Costa Rica

I would appreciate any comments, especially shared experiences, you might have.

To be continued. Wish me luck.