Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Piece of my Heart

On Thursday afternoon I am scheduled to have a procedure performed on my heart to correct a condition called atrial flutter. Some of my friends have been curious and some concerned so I thought I'd try to explain it as well as I can. The good news is that the procedure is very low risk, and highly likely to permanently repair the atrial flutter.

The Wikipedia description of atrial flutter is quite clear and seems completely consistent with the information I've received from my cardiologist.

In a normal heart, the atrium fills with blood and then an electrical impulse causes it to beat and force the blood into the ventricle. With atrial flutter, extra beats cause the heart to beat too frequently. This means that instead of a good strong "woosh" I get lots of half or quarter wooshes. It's kind of like a toilet that keeps running and never really flushes.

While the consequences of this aren't that dire, it does mean that my heart works harder for less effort. My resting pulse before medication was routinely 130 beats per minute, and I was getting out of breath with even small amounts of exercise because my blood doesn't get as much oxygen as it is supposed to get. In the long run, it's not so good for the heart, so it needs to get taken care of.

In my case, the atrial flutter (call it a-flutter if you want to sound like a medical person) is in the right atrium, the part of the heart that gets the blue, oxygen-depleted blood from the veins and pushes it into the lungs. The good news is that this is the low-pressure side of the heart, so it's easier and safer to work on.

The ablation procedure consists of inserting a catheter into a vein on my right side and sliding it up to the heart. This is done while I lie on top of a table with big magnets that make it possible for the electro-physiology specialist to see a 3D image of my heart as he works. It's scheduled to take about an hour to get the tip of the catheter to the right position on what's called the isthmus and then burn a small ridge that will interrupt the extra electric flow, stopping the atrial flutter and returning my heart permanently to a normal rhythm. This is all done under sedation, not a general anesthetic.

It's customary to say that someone is lucky when they have a health problem that's not too bad or easily fixed. Actually, I would say "lucky" would be not having atrial flutter. But I am grateful that I have a problem that medical science knows how to repair at very low risk.

I'm not looking forward to this but I'm really not too nervous. It will be good to have it over with! I'll try to post something on Friday about how it went.


  1. "It's kind of like a toilet that keeps running and never really flushes."

    Have you tried jiggling the handle? Seriously, get well soon. I've known a couple people who had ablation procedures like this one and they seem pretty routine nowadays. Amazing.

  2. Dan, the rough equivalent of "jiggling the handle" is what's called cardioversion, which is essentially putting the paddles on your chest and shouting "clear!" The problem is, just like with the toilet, the problem will probably come back... so I'm having them install a new chain instead :)

  3. My mom had an ablative procedure done to correct supraventricular tachycardia. No one *loves* getting medical procedures but at least this seems like a low-risk one. I'll be thinking of you and eagerly awaiting a post when you're ready to write next.

  4. Low risk or not, I'll be thinking of you. I hope it goes well!

  5. Mike, you will be in my thoughts and prayers today. I know you will be fine!

  6. I am so glad to hear that you are feeling better. I know having surgery is nerve-wracking. It's great to hear it's over with and all went well. Stay healthy !

    Nancy Albino