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An Early Sign of Exercise-Induced AFib

September 12, 2023

David A.'s Story - AFIB

Sixty-one-year-old David A.’s resting heart rate hovers in the low 50s, well below the average for most adults, and something he’s quite proud of as a lifelong athlete. But in October of 2021 when David was working out at his favorite gym, he noticed something alarming.

“I saw my numbers on my heart rate monitor spiking really high, but class was just starting, and I hadn’t even broken a sweat yet,” says David, who explains that his heart rate typically hits 140 and higher — the “red zone” as they say at the gym — once the class is in full swing and participants are exerting maximum effort.

A Heart Beating Faster Than It Should

David’s heart was racing at 148 beats per minute that day, which had him more confused than concerned because he felt fine. So, David decided to sync-up his smartwatch to the heart monitor to find out if the monitor was faulty.

In that instant, when both heart monitor and smartwatch reflected the same high-intensity numbers, David knew he had a problem. But it would take another month before he would call a doctor.

“I didn’t act on it until I started feeling symptoms about four weeks later,” says David, when he started noticing his heart fluttering during workouts, accompanied by bouts of nausea and severe exhaustion. “I felt like there were thousands of butterflies flying around in my chest, and I was getting concerned.”

Talking to Experts

David shared his symptoms with his daughter, a doctor in the cardiology field, who implored him to see a heart specialist. He also talked to friends and one doctor’s name kept resurfacing – Jonathan Sussman, MD, a cardiologist at Atlantic Health System’s Morristown Medical Center.

To start, Dr. Sussman had David wear a heart monitor for one week. During that seven-day stretch, the monitor showed that David had six episodes of atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat, all while exercising at the gym. It was clear he had exercise-induced AFib, which can lead to stroke, so Dr. Sussman immediately started him on a prescription medication to regulate his heart.

“I stayed on the medication for about 11 months. But I had gained weight and I was needing an afternoon nap every day. That’s just not me,” says David. “I also think I had an episode or two on the medicine, so this clearly wasn’t my long-term solution.”

Finding a Plan B That Works

David’s next option was to undergo a surgical procedure known as a cardiac ablation – a minimally-invasive procedure that scars heart tissue using cold or heat to block irregular electric signals. Not only did David fully trust Dr. Sussman to perform the procedure, but he researched it, talked with his daughter, wife and friends about it, discussed it at length with Dr. Sussman, and felt certain that it was the right next step.

“There seems to be this halo effect with Dr. Sussman,” says David. “He is known as the king of ablations in the Morristown area, and he came very highly recommended. He’s intelligent, calm, and logical, and this built my trust in him right away.”

“David and I talked a lot about options, and there is an 80% success rate with a cardiac ablation,” says Dr. Sussman. “We monitored him closely after surgery, and in the weeks and months following to make sure the procedure successfully eliminated his arrhythmia. David emerged from the surgery better than expected and remains episode-free with no irregularities or residual problems.”

A New Lease on Life

Today, David is back at the gym four times a week, but now he is much more aware of his heart rate zones and he isn’t pushing it to the max anymore. He’s also embracing his improved health, having retired from consulting and a 35-year career at AT&T to spend time with his wife, three children and eight grandkids.

“It’s my grandkids that motivate me,” says David, who just returned from a week-long golf trip in Ireland where he walked nearly 70 miles. “I feel great, and this has been a real eye-opener for me. If I had not been at the gym and seen the information come across the monitor, I never would have caught this so early and it could have gone undiagnosed to this day.”
David continues to see his primary care doctor regularly and Dr. Sussman checks in with him every three months for an update on his progress. And although Dr. Sussman has cleared David and encourages him to find a local cardiologist to continue his care, David seems to be dragging his feet.

“I probably should find myself a cardiologist,” he says. “But right now, I’m getting the best care possible from regular visits with Dr. Sussman, so I’m going to stick with him as long as he lets me stay.”

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