Note: I had originally intended to post the article about atrial fibrillation and alcohol today, but I’m going to hold off and post, instead, this excellent guest post from Jim and Alison. Wow – I can’t relay relate to their story! Please comment below.
My husband Jim started running 35 yrs ago.
He and a neighbor were doing races for fun. At 6’2 with a swimmer’s build he had always been active with distance hiking as a teenager and as an adult he added martial arts, weight lifting and biking.
Once the kids were on their own we had more time to devote to our love of running and hiking, soon discovering the incredible joy of trail running and hikes rated ‘Very Strenuous’. We traveled across the US to hike and even started to explore trail running and hiking in the Alps. Jim added triathlons and spent most of his free time working hard to maintain that level of fitness. Then he began “hitting a wall” during runs and hikes. We would laughed it off, he would eat an energy gel, and then pushed on through it. We had all kinds of reasons for “The Wall”. We even changed the term to a “Flat Tire”. Some excuses were: Didn’t sleep well the night before, needed more carbs, exercised too much the day before, and the list goes on.
What raised a warning flag was when we ran a simple 5K fund raiser where he worked. It was an out and back and as always he quickly disappeared ahead of me. Soon the fast runners began appearing on the return side, but no Jim. As I approached the turn around point there he was walking and looking awful. We both didn’t laugh this time but he seemed fine later that day. Something was wasn’t right, but he was fine…right? The “Flat Tire” problem continued on and off. Then one day while lifting weights in the basement he came to the top of the steps looking ash grey, swaying unsteadily and saying “Something is wrong with me! My heart is beating weird.”
At the General Practitioners office the Nurse Practitioner brushed it off that he must have stood up too fast. She never took his pulse or blood pressure. After all he obviously looked in excellent shape!
I called a cardiologist group from a University in our area for their take on this and when I briefly explained what had happened they said Jim needed to be seen the next day. Wow! I felt a twinge of anxiety. At the cardiologist office there were no smiles from the doctor seeing Jim. Jim was given an EKG and asked many questions about his medical history and life style. Then oddly the doctor asked him how long had he been an athlete. We both looked at each other and chuckled ! Jim quickly corrected him, “Oh no! I’m not an athlete! I’m just having fun running, doing triathlons and hiking. It’s a good stress release too.” I was nodding with a big smile in agreement.
The doctor unsmiling replied “Triathlons too? So your an endurance athlete then with many years of distance running.”
We both stared at the doctor confused. Then the doctor grabbed the EKG paper and waved it at us sternly stating, “You have serious heart disease!! Your heart rate is very high, blood pressure high and your heart is in arrhythmia!”
“That’s impossible!” I protested, “Jim is in really good shape! He doesn’t even have a gut and he’s only 56!”
The doctor glanced up from his paperwork at my shirtless husband sitting on the examination table and said, “Yes he is in good shape, but his heart isn’t!”
I found myself starting to argue with the doctor and stopped. He was obviously used to the denial routine and was ignoring me.
So we sat there slack jawed for about 15 minutes as the doctor explained how Jim had gone way passed the point of moderate exercise benefits. He told us about the scarring, inflammation and the damage caused by not resting during long runs and pushing through tough workouts. And how many other people had, and were, doing the same thing to their hearts. Oh, and that shot of fine bourbon he so enjoyed every night? No more. We learned that alcohol is poison to the heart muscle.
We’d never heard of any of this before, nor did we even consider ourselves athletes. The years of Jim enjoying his passions weren’t adding years to his life but were shortening it! I wondered if I’d damaged my heart as well. I get “Flat Tires” all the time, jeez…. Hiking was our joy in life together! We couldn’t just stop running and hiking. It was part of who we are!
We left the doctors office silently with scripts for blood work, several different cardiac tests, and prescriptions for a blood thinner, as well as a medication to reduce his heart rate. All of this to lessen his chance of stroke. Appointments were made with other doctors in the cardiology group as well. (Our care was excellent, by the way.) Jim was told he could still workout but not to push. With any luck he could stay this way for the next three maybe five years before needing an ablation. That sounded very scary! Your going to burn what?!!Where?!!
Jim was handed a wallet sized laminated card with a copy of his EKG on one side and the doctor’s business card on the other.
“Please call us immediately if you have any problems. One of our team will meet you at the hospital. Give this card to the ER personnel.”
Really?!!! Wow!!! WTH?? Well, at least he might have three to five years, so everything’s ok….I guess… right?
One of the tests revealed a slightly enlarged heart. We were told again the ablation would help the AF, a temporary fix, but there was no cure. The ablation surgery could also make it stay the same, or it could make it worse. We both figured he had a few years before it got worse so we decided to wait. Unfortunately we didn’t have the five years or even three – Jim’s problems increased rapidly. He started having trouble going up the stairs at work. He was getting more and more tired. There were days where his face looked grey and haggard. His heart beat wildly in his chest. He began spending more and more time having “lazy days” where he would spend all day laying on the sofa watching tv, too dizzy and exhausted to do much else. Sleep was difficult as his hearts crazy beats kept him awake.
Interestingly family insisted he was fine! Not Jim! He’s in great shape! Wish I looked like him! He’s just stressed and needs to take yoga classes! So we had no much needed support. His episodes of AF were soon lasting for days. He was in AF more then out. I stopped tracking it on the calendar. Jim’s mood tanked. During the autumn of 2016 he decided he wasn’t going to let this best him so we went away to hike in the Blue Ridge mountains. The ascent that should have taken us three hours took almost six. I watched my husband frustrated and angry as he struggled to get up that mountain. I don’t know how many times I had to stop and wait for the man who always used to have to wait for me. The next day he was too weak to leave the car for an easy three mile hike to an overlook. I realized our time in the outdoors was now over and so were all our plans for good times.
Jim decided he wanted the ablation surgery.
He retired from his job before the surgery. Having already buried our son, Jimmy, several years ago from the war, mortality wasn’t the stranger it is to most people. We even had an intense discussion with the surgical team right outside the operation room over the forms Jim had signed. Apparently they don’t tell you everything that they are going to do during the ablation! Jim had a DNR order.
“I don’t want to be resuscitated if my heart stops,” stated my husband. But as it turns out, if the heart doesn’t reset itself after the ablation then the doctor will shock it back into rhythm, which in fact stops the heart, albeit but a moment. It was finally agreed that as long as Jim didn’t come out of the operating room worse then before he went in the team could do whatever they felt necessary.
It’s been almost a year since the surgery and Jim only has that flipping feeling several times a week and his energy is back. He prognosis is: If he goes one full year post surgery without going into AF then he has a 70% chance of staying AF free for another three years. So we are back enjoying our hikes! But now we have put a limit on them. Six hours or ten miles whichever comes first, pace: 2.5 mph, not 4 mph. Plus the doctor recommended break every hour. We both gave up running. The doctors said he could still run but we already know he has damaged his heart enough and don’t need to hurry the AF back any faster then need be. As it will return! One of our doctors said, “Once in constant AF the heart wants to stay in constant AF.”
Interesting article but something I cannot really relate to actually. I am an endurance athlete – not pro or even particularly gifted amateur, but I love the exercise, focus, training and racing. It helps me with stress, sleep, keeps me eating healthily, and so on. My cardio actually recognises that and is very supportive of me continuing. I have had an ablation in 2016 and touch wood have very few issues. I had a stress test the other day and had 1 ectopic heart beats – my cardioogist suggested I would have had at least 10 if I was not so fit. I used to weigh 108kg (230 lbs, at 5’10), and that can be as much a trigger / reason for AF as some think endurance sport is. My father, interestingly, had AF since he was in his 40’s, has had 3 ablations and is still having ectopic heart beats. He doesn’t drink and has never run more than a couple of miles, and that was years ago. I appreciate you have to do what works for you, but I am not convinced that the endurance sport is entirely to blame. (Stress, caffeine, lack of sleep and alcohol are triggers for me, normally when combined).
Thanks for your comment and your input. It’s good to hear that yr ablation was so successful. Clearly endurance sports isn’t entirely to blame for atrial fibrillation – but there’s no denying that a fib, common among a wide range of people, is more common in middle aged endurance athletes than less athletic people of similar age.