YOUR HEALTH: Slowing down the heart in a new way

ATLANTA, Georgia – People with heart conditions often need to turn to medicines to regulate their heart beat.

But those medicines also come with a risk.

Tackling the heaviest weights was never an issue for Malon Wickham, until a few years ago.

"I was having a hard time breathing and I thought maybe that I was just getting older."

During a routine EKG Malon got a big surprise.

"My upper chamber was beating like 220 beats per minute."

"Atrial fibrillation is the most common arrhythmia affecting patients in the developing world," explained Dr. David DeLurgio, professor of Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

Medication can control most cases of A-FIB.   But Malon was suffering from persistent A-FIB, meaning he was at a high risk for stroke.

"Ablation is an intervention designed to markedly decrease the chance of having recurring atrial fibrillation," said Dr. Delugio.

Surgeons either burn or freeze specific areas of the heart causing A-FIB.

Now two surgeons at Emory St. Joseph's Hospital are teaming up to improve outcomes for patients.

It's called the convergent procedure.

First, the cardiothoracic surgeon makes a small incision in the abdomen to gain access to the back of the heart.

Then, the electrophysiologist enters the inside of the heart to ablate the abnormal signals.

"They check the work that I've done using their mapping systems," said Dr. Michael Halkos, Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Emory Healthcare.

The combined approach is proving to be successful.

"We're finding that at least 90 percent of the patients have near complete or complete eradication of their arrhythmias," explained Dr. Delurgio.

TREATMENT:   The atrial fibrillation treatment that is most appropriate for you will depend on how long you've had atrial fibrillation, how bothersome your symptoms are and the underlying cause of your atrial fibrillation.   Generally, the treatment goals for atrial fibrillation are to: reset the rhythm or control the rate, prevent blood clots, and decrease the risk of strokes.  Ideally, to treat atrial fibrillation, the heart rate and rhythm are reset to normal.   To correct your condition, doctors may be able to reset your heart to its regular rhythm using a procedure called cardioversion.   After electrical cardioversion, your doctor may prescribe anti-arrhythmic medications to help prevent future episodes of atrial fibrillation. (Source: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/atrial-fibrillation/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20350630)

Malon had the procedure two and a half years ago.   He's back to the gym and his active life.

"It's nice to have a second chance."

The Converge IDE clinical trial is a nationwide study but has finished accepting people in the program. 

Patients stay in the hospital for 48 hours after the surgery and recover at home for at least a week.

Risks include injury to the esophagus due to the heat of ablation but doctors say they take precautions to avoid that risk.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.