Home > Patient Stories > Racing shoes and racing heart — changing course toward recovery
The metaphor “my heart skips a beat” usually refers to shock, but for atrial fibrillation (AFib) patients, it’s a literal occurrence.
AFib is a type of heart arrhythmia that affects more than three million people in the U.S; it’s a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat that causes the heart to beat quickly or irregularly.
As an avid runner and relay racer, Michael (Mike) Newhouse knew something was wrong when he started feeling his heart out of rhythm in 2014. After visiting the Mercy Cardiology Clinic, Mike left wearing a Holter monitor, so cardiologists could monitor his heart beats over a span of 24 to 48 hours. The monitor records everything the heart does during that time, and when Mike felt his symptoms, he would push the button on the monitor.
The monitor concluded the presence of AFib which was determined to be not life-threatening. Mike was to continue to live his normal life and receive regular check-ups.
Several years later, Mike was experiencing new heart-related symptoms, so he visited Mercy Cardiology Clinic’s Ryan Hollenbeck, MD, FACC, FSCAI.
“When I saw him [Mike], his primary symptom was palpitations,” explained Dr. Hollenbeck. “He is an avid runner and had noticed his pulse was irregular at times, and he was beginning to develop palpitations during strenuous activity. Often, he was having to stop running when these palpitations came on because he would also get shortness of breath. These were new symptoms, and the cause of these symptoms was unknown at the time I saw him.”
After an electrocardiogram (EKG) — a test that shows the heart’s electrical activity — Dr. Hollenbeck diagnosed Mike with AFib and a treatment plan was developed.
When in AFib, disorganized electrical signals, which can be seen on an electrocardiogram, originate in the heart’s upper chambers, or atria. Because contractions are not coordinated like they are during a normal heartbeat, the heart does not pump blood effectively to the rest of the body.
Mike was advised to either take medication for AFib or undergo an ablation procedure; Mike chose the procedure.
“I didn’t want medication,” Mike explained. “My goal was to not take medication permanently, only temporarily.”
AFib is not considered curable and over half of the patients — 50 to 60% — face a redo procedure within five years. There are many reasons patients have AFib recurrences after ablation and need redo procedures, among them, pulmonary vein reconnections and progression of disease substrate in the atrial muscle are common ones.
Sure enough, about a year after his first ablation procedure, Mike went on a long run — more than 10 miles — and he experienced AFib the next day.
“I would go into it for a few hours,” Mike said. “That’s when I came back in [to the Cardiology Clinic] when it was every week; that’s when I thought, ‘Okay, this is too much.’”
A second ablation was recommended in lieu of the medication.
In 2020, Mike had a second ablation procedure and has not experienced AFib since.
His second ablation was for pulmonary vein reconnection. This is the mechanism for AFib in more than 70% of patients. Atrial fibrillation is not a single disease process. Rather, it is the common endpoint of multiple distinct processes. In Mike’s case, his mechanism is called pulmonary vein automaticity. This mechanism is seen in basically healthy, endurance-type athletes. It has the best prognosis after ablation.
Mike has continued his love for running, and slowly built his miles back up after the second ablation procedure.
“I feel a heck of a lot better than I did,” Mike said. “I can look at my running log and see I was having issues back then but this time, I haven’t. Maybe taking it slower is why it’s been better, but [I] definitely was able to amp up the running a lot better and easier.”
In May 2020, Mike was planning to participate in the Ragnar Great Midwest relay race, but due to COVID-19, it was cancelled. The race was a 12-person, 100-mile relay that would have started in Waukegan, IL and would have ended in Madison, WI. It was supposed to be a continuous race, so Mike and his team of runners would have slept in a van and alternated runners. The race was going to be his 14th relay race.
Since it was cancelled, Mike and his team decided to do a virtual run. The team members ran the miles they were supposed to in the race and logged their miles into the Ragnar Great Midwest website. Mike ended up running about 15 miles in total.
Additionally, Mike decided to do something that he’s never done before throughout his 40 years of running — run more than 15 consecutive days. He runs between 2.5 and 6 miles each day. His ambitious goal was to run 100 consecutive days — which he achieved in August 2020 — and he continues to run. Now, that’s what you call not skipping a beat!
If you feel like a fish is flopping, drums are pounding or thunder is rumbling in your chest, you may have AFib. Common symptoms of AFib are fatigue, shortness of breath, light headedness, chest palpitations or chest pain. If you are experiencing any of those symptoms, talk with your primary care physician and request to be seen by Electrophysiologist, Kashif Chaudhry, MD, at Mercy’s Heart Center.
*COVID-19 has been shown to cause heart-related issues. Those who have been exposed and/or have known heart-related issues, need to be on alert for symptoms, such as: discomfort in the chest; pain or discomfort in one or both arms; or shortness of breath, as these could lead to new or worsening heart issues. If you’re experiencing heart-related issues or other health concerns, don’t put off your care. Mercy and clinics have been functioning for months with safety measures in place. At Mercy’s Heart Center, you can receive care before it leads to worsening heart issues. If you or a loved one is experiencing serious heart-related symptoms, please call 911.