Sutter Heart & Vascular Institute
Jimmy Jo and Kirk - Taking on Atrial Fibrillation as a Team
“I felt like I had just run a marathon…all the time,” says Jimmy Jo, describing the effects of persistent atrial fibrillation. The electrical system in Jimmy Jo’s heart had gone haywire, causing it to race from the normal 60 to 100 strokes per minute to an almost constant 110. Just as a marathon runner feels exhausted after a race, Jimmy Jo was constantly out of breath and unable to do much. Working a full day became too tiring and even a quick trip to the grocery store eventually became unbearable.
On top of the exhaustion, Jimmy Jo was facing a deep and perhaps well-founded fear. Jimmy Jo was 65. Her mother had been 65 when she died of heart failure. Jimmy Jo couldn’t escape the worry that she might meet the same fate.
But Jimmy Jo had new treatments and a great medical team on her side. She also had a strong faith. And she had Kirk, her husband of 47 years. Kirk took Jimmy Jo to every doctor’s appointment and was such a fixture that her Modesto cardiologist, Dr. Rajesh Dubey, asked where Kirk was when she once came to an appointment without him.
Dr. Dubey provided excellent care, first putting Jimmy Jo through testing to diagnose atrial fibrillation, then prescribing medication. When medication didn’t help, he performed an electrical cardioversion, delivering an electrical jolt to the chest. The electrical current stops the heart briefly so that it returns to the proper rhythm when it resumes pumping. After each of three shocks, Jimmy Jo’s heart held the correct rhythm for only a few seconds before the chaotic beating returned. When a change in medication and another electrical cardioversion failed to tame Jimmy Jo’s heart, Dr. Dubey referred her to Sacramento for advanced care.
Jimmy Jo and Kirk didn’t know what to expect when they met with Sutter cardiac electrophysiologist Dr. Subramaniam Krishnan. “We were nervous as could be driving to Sacramento,” recalls Jimmy Jo.
Once they arrived, the couple quickly began to relax. “Everyone in the office made us feel at home,” says Jimmy Jo,” and Dr. Krishnan spent an hour and a half talking to us about what my heart was doing, explaining catheter ablation and answering our questions. Although he would step out to handle things while we read materials, he made us feel that he had all the time in the world for us.”
“He used a 3-D model of the heart to explain things,” says Kirk. “The model came apart so that he could show us how the heart works and exactly where he would be working. That really helped us understand the procedure.”
“He also gave us a letter from one of his patients who had been through catheter ablation,” says Jimmy Jo. “That letter gave me an optimism that I hope to bring others by sharing my story.”
Jimmy Jo’s complex catheter ablation procedure took several hours. Dr. Krishnan felt that the problematic rhythm was arising from or immediately adjacent to the pulmonary veins that bring oxygen-rich blood back to the heart. To fix the problem, he pierced two holes into the left atrium, threaded in two electrode catheters, and targeted the point the pulmonary veins connect with the left atrium. He used a combination of freezing and heating of the heart muscle to create a pinpoint ring of scar tissue where Jimmy Jo’s pulmonary vein joined the atrium, preventing any misfires from reaching the rest of the heart muscle. Jimmy Jo also had several other rhythm abnormalities termed atrial flutters arising from the left and right atria that had to be carefully mapped and ablated.
“Those were the loneliest hours of my life,” says Kirk. “But when I walked into the recovery room and saw Jimmy Jo’s steady heart beat on the monitor screen, I was amazed. I hadn’t seen that in ages.”
Dr. Krishnan was quite clear about what to expect after the ablation. He cautioned them that healing would take three to four months and that atrial fibrillation could flare up during this time. When her heart began fluttering three weeks later, Jimmy Jo and Kirk returned to Sacramento for a quick electrical cardioversion. Since then, Jimmy Jo’s heart has maintained its steady beat.
“It was hard to be patient,” says Jimmy Jo, “but we think the sun rises and sets on Dr. Krishnan so we listened carefully and followed his advice. When he said I could, I started walking 15 minutes every morning. Now I walk 45 minutes, sometimes an hour. It’s remarkable...I feel like I have my life back.”
As a couple who went through every step of the difficult process together, Jimmy Jo and Kirk also share the joy. “We can’t thank Dr. Krishnan, Dr. Dubey, and the entire Sutter team enough. My wife has her life back,” Kirk says with a smile, “and I have my wife back.”
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