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Warren’s Story – Atrial Fibrillation

My name is Warren and I live with AF.

Now 53 years of age I have lived a very healthy existence my entire life.  I have competed at an elite level in Triathlon and distance running for more than 30 years, have a very healthy diet, have never smoked, drink alcohol very rarely and have never even had a cup of coffee in my life.

In 2010 in my late 40s and at the peak of fitness, I was running around 80 to 100 kilometres a week and racing most weekends in various NSW Athletics Masters Events. I was also doing 3-4 strength sessions in the gym to supplement my aerobic workouts.  I was a member of the Sydney Sweat Elite running squad coached by Australia Distance coach Sean Williams, a squad filled with State and National Champions of all ages. My love of running and exercise was an important balance for me in my busy life with roles of father, teacher and professional musician.

My passion for running was one I shared with teenage son Jordan, himself a National level Cross Country Athlete.

Early in 2010 Jordan had been unwell leading up to the NSW and National Cross Country Championships. I decided to take him along for a medical check with a good friend of mine, a GP who specialises in athlete’s health named Dr Trevor Tingate. Whilst there I asked Trevor to give me a thorough medical check as well as I had not had one in several years. Trevor and I had run about 15 kilometres together the previous day. He laughed at my request telling me there would be nothing wrong with me, but I pushed him and he agreed to do the test.

Trevor listened to my heart and his face paled. He asked if I was feeling anything strange. I didn’t. He looked really concerned and said he wanted to do an ECG (echocardiogram) which detected I was in atrial fibrillation. Trevor told me I needed to see a Cardiologist immediately and to stop training. I was in absolute shock.

The following day I was with a cardiologist. I did a stress test which involved running on a treadmill with wires attached to my chest. Despite the treadmill moving faster I continued running – it felt like my regular jog. The Cardiologist was amazed as I was in AF with my heart rhythm all over the place. One minute it was high, then low and stopping for periods throughout the run. However for some reason I seemed to continue normally without any physical or visual sign of stress. After more than 20 minutes on the treadmill at speed and high incline the cardiologist stopped the test. He said it was very extraordinary that I was able to do what I had just done with the readings he was seeing on the screen.

Two days later I was in the Intensive Cardiac Ward of the Marter Hospital in North Sydney where the Cardiologist performed a cardioversion, which involves delivery of an electric current to the heart to restore an irregular rhythm to normal. Initially it worked and my heart was back in sinus rhythm, but later that night the AF returned. Manually checking my pulse over the next few days I noticed that my heart beat was in and out of normal rhythm, a further ECG confirmed this.

The Cardiologist then prescribed heart medication and blood thinners. Quickly I began to feel side effects including nausea, fatigue, and lethargy. After I started on meds I could barely jog 1 kilometre, I’d gone from running at an elite Master’s level to not being able to run at all in a matter of weeks. On one occasion when attempting to run with the squad it felt like I was having a heart attack, I was breathless and struggling to stand up. I was feeling terrible.

My spiralling health compelled me to seek a second opinion. My new Cardiologist was most concerned about the medication I had been taking for now what was the past three months. He stopped the drugs immediately. Within a matter of 48 hours off the medication I was feeling great again. I had a few runs and went to the gym, all was fine.

To further explore my issues my new Cardiologist got me to wear a holter monitor to record the activity of my heart over a five day period. The monitor detected several hundred pauses often at night and some as long as 13 seconds. I was stunned! I didn’t notice anything unusual however the doctors told me I was lucky to wake up each day. I was in total denial, but the doctors began to rattle off names of several internationally acclaimed athletes who had developed similar conditions at the height of their professional careers.

Within 24 hours I received a Medtronic Cardiac Pacemaker to monitor and regulate my heart rate. I was awake for the operation and was able to communicate with the Medical Team and watch the procedure on an Ultra-sound Screen.

14 days after getting the pacemaker I was off all medications and back running again. That first run was a little daunting as I had no idea what to expect but I pushed out a good 10 kilometres and felt fine at the end of it. The next couple of weeks became a personal mental test. I would drop Jordan off to train with the squad and then head out on my own, each time pushing a bit further and a bit harder. I was steadily regaining my running fitness and my confidence. Within a month I had returned to my running squad. After two months I raced my first Cross Country and then my first 9 kilometre Road Race finishing in 32 minutes qualifying me for an elite start the following year. This was followed by my first post procedure Age Group win in the Sydney Mother’s Day Classic.

In October of 2013 I was invited Medtronic to run in the TC 10 Mile Championships in Minneapolis USA as a member of their Global Heroes Team. I have since been invited back as the International Team Captain for the 2014 race on October 5, 2014.

My advice to others is, even if you are fit and healthy, I strongly encourage regular check-ups and trust your instinct. I had no idea I had a heart condition, let alone my years of exercising was putting my life at risk. See your doctor.

I have learnt that being diagnosed with a heart condition is not the end of the world. In fact for me my unexpected diagnosis may have in fact saved my life. We are lucky in this day and age we live in that we have so many great medical options available to us to live a normal and healthy life when the unexpected occurs.

Warren – 2013 Medtronic Global Hero

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