Jimmy's Story: My Experience With Atrial Fibrillation.
Jimmy's Story: My Experience With Atrial Fibrillation
A late diagnosis of atrial fibrillation created challenges until one procedure gave him back his life.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Jimmy McFarland remembers experiencing a racing heart for most of his life, but it wasn't until his late thirties that he was finally diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, also known as afib.
"It felt like I'd had the same symptoms since I was a teenager," recalls McFarland, now 43 and living in Paragould, Arkansas. But whenever he would go to see his doctor, the contractions would be dismissed or attributed to anxiety. "That went on for years," McFarland says.
Getting a Diagnosis
For a long time, the episodes would come on sporadically. "I would just wake up and have it for a couple of days," he says. It was bearable when he would go for month-long stretches without the telltale flip-flopping. But when they started coming every few weeks and even every few days, he knew he had to do something about it.
McFarland was diagnosed after an episode that seemed drastically worse than previous ones. That time, he had gone to the doctor's office and told them how lousy he felt.
"I'd just gotten so weak and my heart was getting worse in the way it was beating," he says. "When they hooked me up to the EKG that time, about three or four nurses came in and they said I was in afib, and they put me in the hospital."
Doctors at the hospital first placed him on antiarrhythmic drugs, experimenting until they found one that worked best, McFarland says. The medication worked for a while, but despite finally having an explanation for the way he felt, the diagnosis left him struggling with the anxiety of having an erratic and unpredictable heart condition.
RELATED: 5 Things to Know Before an Ablation Procedure
"For a couple of years, I was paralyzed with fear. I could hardly do anything," McFarland says. "I stayed home a lot. I self-medicated for a while with alcohol. I tried some anxiety medications, but they just made me feel lethargic, so I didn't stay on those long."
McFarland now realizes that drinking all that beer was a mistake. "The alcohol was probably a contributor," he says of his episodes of atrial fibrillation. "I never could pinpoint foods, but I try to avoid things with MSG — they say that's a trigger. I was a smoker, too, and I quit that."
Alcohol and caffeine are two potential triggers that people with atrial fibrillation should definitely avoid, said William R. Lewis, MD, chief of clinical cardiology for MetroHealth System and a professor of medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Dr. Lewis says he has a patient who reacts every time she has chocolate because of the caffeine in it.
While McFarland now knows he was doing a lot of things wrong even after his July 2008 diagnosis, at the time, he never connected specific triggers to his atrial fibrillation, which only heightened his constant anxiety.
Atrial Fibrillation: From Anxiety to Ablation Treatment
"I had been seeing a cardiologist, but I wanted something else done. I knew the medications were just a temporary fix, and I didn't like the side effects," McFarland says. "So I made an appointment with an electrophysiologist in another town."
The new doctor recommended ablation, a procedure in which a surgeon deliberately scars the part of the heart sending out abnormal electrical impulses. There's a risk of stroke or excess bleeding in the ablation surgery, but McFarland felt the risk was worth it, given his constant anxiety.
He underwent ablation in July 2011 and has been afib-free since. Four years later, he is still in good health.
"I was on medication for about six months post-ablation, and I still take a daily baby aspirin to help with the stroke risk," McFarland says. "This has given me my life back. I can go and enjoy things."
Still, he admits, he's not totally anxiety-free. "I still get the skipped beats," he says.
Video: Atrial Fibrillation-A personal story
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