OGDEN — Imagine sitting in a chair with your heart racing as if you had just run a marathon.
According to the American Heart Association, approximately 6.1 million Americans have a condition called atrial fibrillation, an irregular and rapid heart rate that puts a person at risk for stroke. Most of the time, patients are put on blood thinning medications and other prescriptions to help slow their heart rate, but these medications only control the problem instead of fixing it.
Now, for the first time in Utah, a cardiac surgeon and cardiac electrophysiologist are working together to provide an innovative treatment for patients with advanced atrial fibrillation. The minimally invasive hybrid ablation procedure, performed at Ogden Regional Medical Center, combines a surgical ablation and a catheter ablation during one hospital stay.
Dr. David Affleck, a cardiothorasic surgeon at Ogden Regional Medical Center and St. Mark’s Hospital, said the procedure helps to restore a normal hearth rhythm, often when other types of treatment have failed.
During the procedure, Affleck performs a series of ablations, or small controlled burns, on the outside of the heart.
“We put a breathing tube in where we can turn the right or left lung off,” he said. “Then we place a small camera in the right chest and open the lining of the heart with a very small incision through the armpit.”
Affleck said the ablations block the storm of chaotic electrical signals related to atrial fibrillation, keeping them from disrupting the heart’s rhythm. He also removes the left atrial appendage to lower the patient’s stroke risk.
Cardiac electrophysiologist, Dr. Peter Forstall conducts a detailed mapping of the inside of the heart through a catheter to identify more errant electrical signals. He then applies catheter ablations to areas that could not be completed on the outside surface. This two-step process creates a scar that goes completely through the heart tissue, which more permanently blocks misfiring electrical signals.
After the collaborative procedure, many patients are able to stop taking their medication, Affleck said.
“The combination of these two procedures often produces better outcomes for those patients who we treat with advanced atrial fibrillation,” Forstall said. “We see improvement in the health and well being of these patients as they get back to a normal heart rhythm.”
Atrial fibrillation is a condition that a person develops, Affleck said. It’s more common in the elderly and can happen for a number of reasons.
“Obviously, because we are keeping people alive longer, we are dealing with it more but we also see it in patients who have heart disease,” he said. “I typically see it in people between the ages of 60 and 70, but I have seen it in people as young as 36.”
Affleck said during atrial fibrillation, the heart’s two upper chambers quiver and beat irregularly. Because of this, the two lower chambers of the heart get confused and out of coordination. This causes shortness of breath, chest pain and heart palpitations.
“When the top chamber is quivering, or fibrillating, blood tends to clot and that puts a person at a major risk of having a stroke,” Affleck said.
Affleck also performs the procedure at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City with electrophysiologist Dr. Michael Eifling.