One patient described it "like a bunch of scared bullfrogs in a bag inside my chest that were trying to jump out."
It's Atrial Fibrillation, (AF) an abnormality of the electrical systems of the heart. One of the most common irregular heart rhythms, it affects more than 2.2 million people in the United States. Symptoms can include heart palpitations, lack of energy, dizziness, chest discomfort and shortness of breath.
Left untreated, chronic AF can increase the risk of stroke, heart failure and even death. Fortunately, several treatment options are available, including medications and lifestyle changes. When those do not work, procedures such as electrical cardioversion or catheter ablation are often successful in alleviating symptoms. But they aren't effective for everyone. Some patients are so uncomfortable when they're in atrial fibrillation, or suffer such adverse side effects from the medications to treat the condition, that surgical intervention is needed.
The good news for these patients is an innovative surgery called the Maze procedure which has proven highly successful in curing atrial fibrillation.
According to Paul Pearson, MD, Marshfield Clinic cardiovascular surgeon on staff at Saint Joseph's Hospital, the Maze procedure involves a series of precise incisions made in the atrium of the heart to create electrical barriers and specific pathways for electrical activation of the heart. This allows for only one major route for an electrical impulse to travel through both atria of the heart-hence the term "maze." Saint Joseph's Hospital is one of only a few hospitals in Wisconsin offering the procedure.
"The Maze procedure is an open heart procedure, so it's only considered when other treatment methods have failed," said Dr. Pearson. "The procedure can also be performed in conjunction with other cardiac surgical procedures. In a recent case, the patient needed open heart surgery to replace an aortic valve, and we were able to use the Maze procedure to cure his longstanding AF as well."
That patient, Jerry Rhoades, of Marshfield, was all too familiar with the symptoms of atrial fibrillation. He suffered from AF for nearly seven years before undergoing the Maze procedure last December.
"I noticed the first symptoms when I was bowling," he recalled. "My legs suddenly felt all rubbery. And I used to walk to work, but noticed I'd get more and more tired. It got to the point where I was exhausted once I got there."
Subsequent tests revealed he had AF. Medications worked at first, but symptoms gradually worsened. When he was told he needed a valve replacement, Dr. Pearson said that the Maze procedure could be done at the same time.
"He explained everything to me, so I decided to have both procedures done at the same time," Jerry said. "I went in December 17 of last year, and was discharged December 24. By the end of January, I was able to go on a cruise to the southern Caribbean."
A year later, Jerry, a regional sales manager with Wisconsin Homes, is still able to play basketball with his grandson, do the endless upkeep at some cottages he owns in the Rhinelander area and even do a little water skiing ("once a summer, just to say I did it.")
"The Maze procedure was first developed in the 1980s. Studies show that the procedure has a cure rate of up to 90 percent for longstanding atrial fibrillation," said Dr. Pearson. "Symptoms are eliminated and patients experience a lower incidence of stroke and blood clots. For AF patients, it can significantly improve their quality of life."
Jerry agrees. "I know that if someone needs this type of procedure for their AF, Dr. Pearson is definitely the guy to talk to," Jerry said. "I am still on blood thinner and some other medications, but I feel good - better than I have in years."