By: Jim Barfield

We are continually reminded of the warning signs for certain critical health issues such as heart attacks and strokes. Recently, I experienced the warning signs and symptoms for a heart attack. I had a major health scare which was a wake up call that I would like to share. In fact it was something I had never considered. It was an occurrence of atrial fibrillation which was frightening and required hospitalization. Unknown to me at the time, without prompt medical attention it could have resulted in a stroke or even death.

On a normal day, I went to bed around 10 p.m., and at 3 a.m., I woke up with chest pain, difficulty breathing and both arms tingling. My heart felt like it was beating out of my chest. And of all times, my wife (who is a healthcare professional) was out of town. Thinking I was having a heart attack, I called 911 and Brevard County Rescue responded immediately. Upon arriving, the EMTs assessed my condition and put me on an EKG. The EMTs determined my heart rate was around 190 beats per minute and bouncing around out of rhythm. The normal resting heart rate for me is around 50 beats per minute.

I was transported by ambulance to Cape Canaveral Hospital in (what seemed to me) record time. The ER physician diagnosed my condition as atrial fibrillation (a-fib) and administered a drug by IV to convert the heart rate to normal. I was admitted to the hospital by a cardiologist for tests and monitoring. All tests were normal and there were no repeat episodes while at the hospital. The cardiologist prescribed medications to prevent a reoccurrence and many more tests as an outpatient.

What is atrial fibrillation?
My first question was “what is atrial fibrillation?” The heart has two upper chambers and two lower chambers. The upper chambers are called the left atrium and the right atrium. The two lower chambers are the left ventricle and the right ventricle. When the two upper chambers contract at an excessively high rate, and in an irregular way, the patient has atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia which is a problem with the speed or rhythm of the heartbeat. Arrhythmias are caused by a disorder in the heart’s electrical system.

What are the medical risks?
An estimated 2.7 million people have atrial fibrillation. One of the most common complications with atrial fibrillation is the formation of blood clots in the heart. The irregular beating of the atria and ventricles results in varying amounts of blood pumped with each heartbeat causing pooling, stagnation and thickening of the blood and developing clots. The clots can then work their way into the general circulation and block arteries in the brain, causing a stroke. People with a-fib are five to seven times more likely to form blood clots and suffer a stroke.

What causes A-Fib?
In many cases, the causes of atrial fibrillation are unknown. In some cases, the causes are a heart abnormality from birth, damage caused from a heart attack or a heart valve problem. Systemic diseases, metabolic issues or cardiovascular disease may cause or contribute to an onset of a-fib. The frightening thing is that a-fib can occur when there is no identifiable cause and it can occur any time for no apparent reason.

Atrial fibrillation has a much greater chance of occurring as we age. In my case, the risk for having an occurrence of a-fib was one percent. All of the testing revealed no underlying cause for a-fib. I am in excellent health, exercise regularly, eat healthy and there is no known reason for the one time occurrence of a-fib. I now take aspirin daily and a prescribed medication to prevent an occurrence. If it happens more often there are other solutions but so far so good.

It is important to know the symptoms and get medical attention quickly. In my case I had no prior warning or high risk factors. But it was one heck of a way to get my first (and hopefully last) ride in the back of an ambulance.

Jim Barfield is the president, CEO and co-owner of Luke & Associates, Inc. in Rockledge. His company, founded in 2004, is a major provider of medical and clinical support services for the military. In addition, Luke provides advisory and assistance services in the fields of engineering, research, information systems and medical systems.