For years, I have experienced the weird sensation of skipped heartbeats.
They have occurred at play and at rest, at home and at work, during the day and at night.
Early on, the occasional missed beats were symptomatized as light flutters in my chest — strange but fleeting. I ignored them, thinking they were nothing out of the ordinary.
When my doctor discovered the skips, he told me they were not normal but also not uncommon and that we should “keep an eye” on the situation.
As the occasional skips became more frequent and turned into longer-lasting episodes of rapid and irregular heartbeat, the doc told me I was experiencing a condition called atrial fibrillation and that it was time to do something about it.
AFib is the most common form of cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat. An estimated 2.3 million Americans suffer from it.
In some AFibers, like me, the episodes of arrhythmia come and go. In others, the irregularity is ongoing. The biggest threat connected with AFib is an increased risk of stroke.
Symptoms, for me, include a gurgling sensation in the chest. As a fellow AFiber, singer Barry Manilow, perfectly describes the feeling, it’s like “a fish flopping around in my chest.”
Fatigue, weakness, light-headedness and shortness of breath are other symptoms I’ve endured. In short, when I’m in AFib, I just feel punk.
It amazes me that some people with AFib experience no symptoms. I can feel every skipped beat, every flutter. On several occasions, I have been awakened during the night by the onset of another episode.
Manilow, too, says it “blew me away” when he found out that some AFibers don’t feel the irregularities. “When I go into AFib, there’s no way to ignore it,” Manilow says. “My symptoms are sudden, disruptive and can be very frightening.”
When my doctor and I began the effort to control my AFib, I was given an oral medication, Flecainide, which was intended to keep my heartbeat in a regular, or sinus, rhythm.
The drug helped, but there were still times when my heart would suddenly pounce into a fast, irregular rhythm with skipped beats and stay that way. Several times, I had to go to the hospital and undergo a cardioversion, a procedure in which doctors use electric shock on the chest to convert atrial fibrillation to a normal rhythm.
My cardiologist eventually added another med, Diltiazem, to my regimen, and the combination of medications seemed to do the trick, keeping my heart beating deeply and regularly. But I still experienced skipped beats — sometimes several times a day.
In recent months, more extended episodes of AFib have occurred. During most of these latest bouts, my heart converted to a regular rhythm on its own. But in January, I had to have another cardioversion.
I’m now taking the maximum recommended doses of Diltiazem and Flecainide, and my heartbeat has stayed regular and strong for several weeks. I’m experiencing fewer skipped beats, and I feel good.
But I know there may come a time when medications can no longer control my AFib. If that happens, there are other options, including a procedure called catheter radiofrequency ablation, in which radio waves are used to actually destroy the parts of the heart that are causing the trouble.
Barry Manilow and I are not the only “famous” people who have learned to live with and manage their AFib. Other celebrity AFibers include Vice President Joe Biden, former President George H.W. Bush, evangelist Pat Robertson, rock star Gene Simmons, former Vice President Dick Cheney, ex-NBA standouts Jerry West and Bill Bradley, and hockey player Mario Lemieux. President John Adams is also believed to have been an AFiber.
Manilow has recently appeared in a TV commercial with the aim of increasing awareness of AFib’s dangers among those who have the condition and don’t experience its symptoms or feel them and either ignore them or don’t understand what’s going on.
For me, the signs are impossible to ignore. So I will continue to faithfully take my meds (which now include Pradaxa, a prescription blood-thinner specifically for AFibers, along with fish oil capsules and an aspirin a day), avoid caffeine, and exercise.
And hope that, as the song says, I can keep walking in rhythm.