In October 2007, Richard Starling was abruptly woken up by a pounding in his chest. "My heart was beating out of control," he says. "My heart beat was all over the place. It felt like I had been running, or like that feeling you get when you're on a rollercoaster."
Richard immediately checked himself in at the Palmetto Health Richland emergency department, where he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.
Atrial fibrillation, also known as A-fib, is a type of arrhythmia in which the heart beats fast and irregularly. Atrial fibrillation is the most common heart disorder, affecting millions of Americans. It occurs when the atria, or upper chambers of the heart, quiver instead of contract in a coordinated manner. The irregularity is due to abnormal impulses in the heart.
Richard was referred to Dr. Verne Prosser, Palmetto Health Heart Hospital cardiologist. Dr. Prosser monitored Richard's heart incidents, which had become an every week occurrence. "He said my atrial fibrillation was a result of a node dysfunction," says Richard. "He put me on medication and I didn't have another episode for about a year, when I jumped back into A-fib while I was brushing my teeth."
At 34 years old and in generally good health, Richard was at low risk for experiencing a stroke as a result of his atrial fibrillation. "It was more a burden than anything else. I had to cut out soda and any caffeine from my diet," he says. "Having to keep up with medications, not knowing if and when the A-fib would flair up again...it's hard."
Richard's atrial fibrillation is considered to be paroxysmal, meaning it starts suddenly and can stop without medical assistance. For Richard, episodes of A-fib came and went without warning, lasting anywhere from a few hours to as long as a day. "The longest incident I can remember was about 24 hours in A-fib. It was excruciating."
Seeking a treatment option more permanent than medication, Richard was referred to Dr. Wade Collins, Palmetto Health Heart Hospital cardiologist with Columbia Heart. Dr. Collins is board certified in cardiac electrophysiology and was one of the first physicians in South Carolina to be trained on balloon CryoAblation. He told Richard he was a candidate for a new method of treatment called CryoAblation.
Palmetto Health Heart Hospital is the first hospital in South Carolina to offer the Arctic Front® Cardiac CryoAblation Catheter system to treat atrial fibrillation. CryoAblation uses a state-of-the-art freezing technology that offers more stability and less risk of damaging critical structures. Unlike traditional ablation treatments that use heat or radiofrequency, CryoAblation uses a liquid coolant to freeze heart tissue in order to prevent the abnormal electrical signals in the heart that cause A-fib. During the procedure, a catheter is inserted into the body and maneuvered into the heart where it isolates the tissue associated with the A-fib and destroys the faulty electrical circuits in the heart.
"The value of the new CryoAblation technology over existing ablation methods is that it enables physicians to safely and effectively isolate the pulmonary veins via a simple, efficient approach," says Dr. Collins. "This minimally invasive procedure gives patients peace-of-mind that their heart may be restored to an appropriate rhythm and they can resume their normal, daily activity following the treatment."
Richard says it was an easy decision. "Dr. Collins explained the entire procedure from beginning to end. He was great," says Richard. "I was so excited to have it done so I could get off my medication and get back to my normal life."
On June 23, 2011, Richard underwent the surgery. The procedure took about three hours, and Richard was able to go home the next morning. "I have no complaints. Everything happened exactly the way Dr. Collins said it would and I haven't had any incidents of A-fib," he says. "It's like a weight has been lifted. I don't have to worry about it anymore." Richard says this experience has changed his life. He's grateful for Dr. Collins and his staff at Palmetto Health Heart Hospital and is thankful for every day he's episode-free.