Jennifer Coulbourne was just 35 years old when she realized something was wrong with her heart. She was sitting on her couch, watching a movie with her husband, when her heart started beating abnormally fast. Then, just as suddenly, the event passed, but she didn’t forget it. “The first time it happened I didn’t know what was happening,” she said. “It scared me.”
Soon, Coulbourne began to experience more frequent, longer-lasting episodes. Sitting still her heart would beat as if out of control. “It was beating so fast,” she said. “It was like my heart was having a seizure.” Within six months, Coulbourne could no longer ignore the issue. “I went from having the episodes happen every once in a while to having it happen nearly all day, every day,” she said.
Until then, Coulbourne, who works as an information technology specialist for the Town of Smyrna, had no reason to worry about her heart. She knew her mother died from a heart-related ailment at age 52, but didn’t think the condition was hereditary. Having never known her father, Coulbourne’s knowledge of her family medical history was incomplete.
Coulbourne’s physician diagnosed her with atrial fibrillation, also known as “AFib.” AFib is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) in which the signal to start the heartbeat is disorganized. This causes the heart to quiver or “fibrillate.” The disorganized signal spreads to the ventricles, causing them to contract irregularly and quickly. The amount of blood pumped out to the body varies with each heartbeat, and the ventricles may not pump blood efficiently to the body.
AFib lasting longer than a year is called long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation. By itself, AFib is not deadly, but untreated AFib can lead to higher risks of stroke and heart failure. And, as Coulbourne explained, “It’s a lot of extra wear and tear on your heart.”
#Knowyourheart, Bayhealth’s hashtag for Heart Month 2016, is about being aware of our own risks for heart disease. People with a family history of heart disease are more likely to develop something similar in their lifetime. Other risk factors include smoking, being overweight, having diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and being physically inactive. Coulbourne – who had none of those risk factors – did not realize her own heart health could depend on relatives she never met.
With a friend’s encouragement, Coulbourne met with a cardiologist who prescribed heart medication. She didn’t like the side effects. “The medicine they gave me made me feel like I was in a fog. Everything felt like it was in slow motion. I just couldn’t imagine living the rest of my life like that way,” she said. She visited Vincent D. Abbrescia, DO, of Delaware Heart & Vascular, PA for a second opinion.
“[Coulbourne] had trouble for years,” said Dr. Abbrescia. “She wanted a solution, but she felt bad during the AFib and felt even worse with medication therapy. Although medications are usually the first solution we look at, most young people don’t want to take a daily heart pill.”
“Dr. Abbrescia spent a lot of time with me,” said Coulbourne. “He listened to me carefully and explained what all of my options were.”
Dr. Abbrescia thought Coulbourne could benefit from an AFib ablation, which uses radio waves to surgically disconnect misfiring electrical signals within the heart. The procedure is minimally invasive and reduces arrhythmia by redirecting electrical impulses to the correct receptors within the heart. “I explained to her that ablation cures AFib between 70 and 80 percent of the time,” said Dr. Abbrescia. Coulbourne agreed to go forward with the procedure.
After surgery, Coulbourne’s heart felt noticeably different. “I didn’t realize just how bad I felt on my ‘good days’, until I felt good again,” she said. Now, more than a year after her surgery, she faithfully maintains her regular checkup appointments with Dr. Abbrescia.
“[Coulbourne] hasn’t had a problem since,” said Dr. Abbrescia. “She’s told me she feels like a million bucks.”
To make an appointment with Vincent Abbrescia, DO of Delaware Heart and Vascular, P.A., call 302-734-1414 or visit deheartandvascular.com. For more information about Bayhealth Cardiovascular Services, visit bayhealth.org/heart.