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Cryoablation to treat atrial fibrillation

Sometimes cardiac arrhythmias can occur without warning. This was the case for Pam Weeks, a patient at Piedmont Heart Institute.

“My heart just started racing, which was real unusual for me because I’d never had any problem of any sort with that,” says Weeks. “It was a feeling I’d never felt before.”

Weeks went to her primary care physician who did an electrocardiogram (EKG) and found that her heart was out of rhythm.

Atrial flutter diagnosis

Her physician referred Weeks to Piedmont Heart, where she was diagnosed with atrial flutter and put on medication to control the arrhythmia.

The medication worked for about five years. Then suddenly, her heart went out of rhythm again – and it stayed out of rhythm for hours.

“When your heart is beating that fast and you’re still going on with your everyday activities, it just wears you out,” Weeks explains.

Radiofrequency ablation procedure

Her cardiologist determined she needed something stronger than medication – radiofrequency ablation – to correct the problem. About six weeks after the procedure, Weeks felt back to normal.

Stress leads to arrhythmia again

Then a stressful family situation caused Weeks’ heart to go back into irregular rhythms – and this time, it was worse.

“I tried to go for my daily walk and couldn’t make it,” she says. “My husband had to come pick me up. I got home and could barely make it up and down the steps.”

She went back to her internist for evaluation.

“She immediately took me to Piedmont’s emergency room, where I was admitted to the hospital,” says Weeks.

Her new atrial fibrillation diagnosis

Weeks was cardioverted the next day. Cardioversion is a procedure in which an irregular heartbeat is converted to a normal rhythm with medication or electricity.

She was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a fast and irregular heartbeat.

“I knew then I was going to see [electrophysiologist] Dr. Andy Wickliffe because I knew I could have the ablation,” she says.

Dr. Wickliffe explained that radiofrequency ablation (her first procedure) uses heat to destroy small parts of the heart muscle responsible for arrhythmia. Cryoablation, on the other hand, freezes those small parts of the heart muscle. They decided cryoablation was the best treatment for her atrial fibrillation.

“I trusted him explicitly,” she says. “I said, ‘Let’s do this.’”

Cryoablation procedure

“When you have atrial fibrillation, nerve endings in [your] heart are misfiring,” says Weeks. “The cryoablation goes in there and freezes them off.”

Dr. Wickliffe explained that it would take six to eight weeks for the nerve endings to scar and the irregular rhythms to stop.

“Miraculously, after two months it totally went away,” she says.

Living with a normal heartbeat

“For the last year it’s just been back to normal, having fun with my grandchildren, exercising, doing all the things I’ve done before,” says Weeks.

She knows the atrial fibrillation could come back, but Dr. Wickliffe is confident that she’s “98 percent cured.”

Click here to learn more about Piedmont’s Cardiac Electrophysiology Program.  

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