Connie Hodge never knew when it would hit. Suddenly, her heart would race, she'd get headaches, be short of breath, and feel dizzy, her energy sapped. Sometimes the spell would last 10 minutes, sometimes several hours.
"It" is atrial fibrillation, one of the most common heart arrhythmias in the United States. Connie, 56, of Marshfield, battled the abnormal heart rhythm for more than nine long years, and is among 2 million people in the United States to be affected by the condition.
Connie's battle, however, looks to be over. In July, she underwent an innovative electrophysiology procedure at Saint Joseph's Hospital called atrial fibrillation ablation. Saint Joseph's Hospital is the only Wisconsin heart center outside of Milwaukee to offer the procedure.
"It was like someone turned the switch from on to off," she recalled. "I can do things that I haven't been able to do for a long time."
Atrial fibrillation has been proven to be one of the most difficult heart arrhythmias to treat. Until recently, medications and an open heart procedure were the only options. But medications are often not 100 percent effective, and can cause side effects. The open-heart procedure is very complex, and although offered at Saint Joseph's Hospital, it is not available at many other hospital facilities.
For Connie, medications helped, but over the years, her AF worsened. "I couldn't climb stairs or even do housework," she said. "I was afraid to drive out of town for fear I'd have an attack. It got to the point where I was paranoid about it, constantly checking my pulse."
Her cardiologist, Dr. John Hayes, then suggested she might be a good candidate for ablation, a less invasive approach involving the use of special catheters threaded through an artery or vein in the groin, up into the left atrium of the heart. It is done with the patient under sedation, not general anesthesia.
"Once the catheters are inserted into the heart we use special mapping techniques to determine the precise area of the atria at which the abnormal signals start," said Dr. Hayes. "These areas are then cauterized to keep the atrial fibrillation from occurring."
The procedure takes approximately four to five hours, and usually requires only an overnight hospital stay. Most patients can resume their normal routine in a few days.
"Ablation offers patients with certain types of atrial fibrillation a new option in treating their condition," said Dr. Hayes. "Right now, it's primarily reserved for people who can't control the condition with medications. But eventually, I think it will evolve to the point where we will be able to cure atrial fibrillation earlier in its course."
Connie, meanwhile, has remained symptom-free since the procedure. "It's given me a better quality of life," she said. "I've already recommended it to others."