Melbourne resident Teresa Christopher has struggled with heart troubles for many years. From heart surgery as a teenager to atrial fibrillation in recent years.
Atrial fibrillation (Afib) is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. It causes accelerated, sluggish or irregular heartbeat. When the heartbeat in the upper two chambers (atria) is irregular, blood flow to the lower two ventricles is disrupted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Even as she suffers with her heart condition, which has led to many procedures and hospitalizations, Christopher still has encouraging words for fellow Afib sufferers.
Chronic tonsillitis at age 14 prompted Teresa’s parents to see a specialist. During the pre op exam, her heart was tested.
“Did you know you have a heart murmur?” the doctor asked.
Christopher’s father owned a garage business in Melbourne for years and one of his customers, a local cardiologist, was shocked at her diagnosis, she said.
“Now we’re talking about 1979,” she said. “You couldn’t even have heart surgery in Brevard County. You had to go to Gainesville or Miami.”
The cardiologist arranged for testing at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne.
“Every day, I would have a heart test done,” she said. A pediatric cardiologist from Orlando looked over the results. “They said based on what we’ve seen, you have a hole in your heart (atrial septal defect) and you have mitral valve prolapse.”
Duke University Medical Center did further tests.
At age 15, after recovering from tonsil and adenoid surgery, she underwent open heart surgery to correct the hole between the two upper chambers of her heart.
Christopher believes surgical scar tissue could have led to Afib in 2018, when her heart started racing out of control.
“I’d be sitting here just watching television and it would go up to 150 beats a minute,” she said. “It scares you because you think you’re having a heart attack.”
The CDC cites symptoms of Afib as irregular heartbeat, heart palpitations (rapid, fluttering or pounding), lightheadedness, extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and chest pain.
Risk factors vary but include age, high blood pressure, obesity, heart failure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, smoking, moderate to heavy alcohol use and enlargement of the left chambers of the heart.
Diagnosis was not easy. Electrocardiograms (EKGs) do not always catch it happening. Christopher said your body is often back to normal when you go for tests. It’s like your car running fine when you take it to the mechanic.
She discovered she had Afib by getting checked on an EKG machine at a fire station.
Prior to her racing heart episodes, Christopher had no indicators that something was wrong except frequent fatigue. She said that for some, caffeine or stress can trigger the racing heart episodes.
“Mine has no rhyme or reason,” she said. “I do have sleep apnea. It can make it worse or contribute to the arrhythmia.” Sleep clinics offer treatments.
Athletes today are getting EKGs to test for underlying heart problems.
Christopher has learned to manage her heart condition.
“Blood thinner is the most important medication that I take every day,” she said.
Afib is the cause of about one in seven strokes, when blood flow to the brain is blocked, usually by a blood clot, according to the CDC.
Christopher received a cardiac pacemaker after her heart rate monitor detected and digitally recorded her heart stopping for four seconds.
An implanted pacemaker sends electrical pulses to help the heart beat at a normal rate and rhythm.
Christopher offers encouragement to other Afib sufferers: Be patient with yourself and find what works.
“It is not a death sentence,” she said. “My father lived to be 85 and he was on his third pacemaker.”
And please be kind. “All handicaps are not visible,” she added. “Heart problems are not visible.”
More information on atrial fibrillation can be found at cdc.gov/ heartdisease/atrial_fibrillation.htm.