Finding Relief for a Racing Heart

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27At age 31, Dover resident Jessica Poe was facing heart surgery, an odd circumstance for an otherwise young, healthy athletic trainer and outdoor enthusiast. Poe, the daughter of a paramedic and a trauma nurse, was born with a heart murmur. Heart murmurs are unexpected sounds created by the turbulence of blood flowing through the heart. They’re common, and most are ‘innocent’, which means the murmur does not indicate a serious heart condition.

In her teens, Poe developed racing sensations and flutters in her chest, called palpitations. These are often caused by an arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm) or extra premature beats. Poe visited a cardiologist and was put on a heart monitor, but it failed to catch the cause of her symptoms. Several years later, Poe had a pre-operative EKG for an unrelated surgery. “They found that I had Wolff-Parkinson-White (WPW) syndrome,” she said. She recalls the anesthesiologist’s surprise at this discovery, and for good reason: the syndrome isn’t normally detected in adults. WPW is a congenital heart abnormality in which an extra electrical bridge connects the upper and lower heart chambers. On rare occasions, the electrical signal goes down one bridge and short circuits back up the other bridge, creating a racing heartbeat.

Through 2014 and into 2015, Poe felt overwhelmed by her racing heart. “I went to the emergency department two or three times,” she said. “I couldn’t get my heart rate to go below 220 beats per minute, and it was making me feel faint.” Normal heart rates at rest are between 60-80 beats per minute (BPM). “I had no idea what was going on,” she said. She experienced frequent episodes of headaches, lightheadedness, and chest pain.

Poe began seeing Laura M. Gravelin, MD, of Delaware Heart & Vascular, P.A. Because Poe’s arrhythmia was difficult to catch on an EKG, Dr. Gravelin put her on a 30 day heart monitor, which finally showed her heart’s irregularities. “I still have the printouts,” said Poe.

Poe discussed her options with Dr. Gravelin; both agreed that an ablation was Poe’s best bet. An ablation uses radio frequency energy to heat the tip of a catheter placed in the heart. The hot tip cauterizes the congenital extra bridge that does not belong there, returning the heart to normal condition.

In 2014, Dr. Gravelin performed the ablation procedure. Poe’s was a rather unusual case; Raymond Miller, MD, of Bayhealth Medical Group Cardiology Consultants agreed to participate in the surgical intervention. Later, when Dr. Gravelin left her Delaware practice, she discussed her departure with Poe. She also explained Dr. Miller was an expert in cardiology and electrophysiology and knew Poe’s heart as well as she did. “I can go to him if I need to,” said Poe.

“These ablation procedures are nothing short of miraculous, curing patients of problems that have plagued them all their lives,” said Dr. Miller. “It’s very freeing for our patients to travel and be away from emergency services without worrying about their heart racing.”

Since the surgery, Poe feels much better. “Every once in a while, my heart feels like it’s gearing up to get into that high pace, but now it stops before it can really get going,” said Poe.

For now, Poe’s making the most of her new lease on life. She’s in the midst of an exciting career change: she’ll soon finish classes to become a paramedic, to follow in her father’s footsteps. As one key function of a paramedic’s job is to be a first responder to victims of heart attacks or strokes; Poe’s heart will be helping others in due time.