The Rhythm of Life



For years Nancy Buckeye experienced an occasional heart flutter, but never gave it much thought.

“I’d mention it to my friends and they’d say they have the same thing,” says the 73-year-old from Edgeley, N.D. “But when the episodes became more frequent and intense, it became obvious to me something was wrong."

Starting her inquiry with Linda LeVee, NP at Sanford Health Edgeley Clinic led to an appointment with cardiologist Dr. Susan Farkas at Sanford Heart which led to tests. The diagnosis: atrial fibrillation (AF). A common heart-rhythm disorder, AF varies in severity, becoming more prevalent in later life. While some people barely feel a flutter, others have lengthy periods of racing heart, dizziness and lightheadedness. Nancy experienced several troublesome episodes daily.

“What really got my attention was when Dr. Farkas said this condition increased my stroke risk,” says Nancy. “That’s when I knew I needed to do something.”

Initial attempts

For Nancy, then 71, the first line of treatment was medications. She also wore a special monitor for a month so her heart team could better analyze her particular AF.

“The monitor showed my irregular heart rhythm would come and go. There was no predicting when it would happen,” says Nancy. “And always I was left feeling weak, tired and shaky.”

When the standard medication didn’t significantly help, Dr. Farkas recommended a consultation with Dr. Christopher Pierce. A cardiologist and electrophysiologist, Dr. Pierce specializes in the heart’s electrical system.

Close examination of Nancy’s problem led to two approaches. The first was stronger medications, but difficult side-effects resulted. The second was cardioversion, an outpatient treatment that involves shocking the heart back into normal rhythm. The treatment worked initially, but within days the AF returned.

“Although many people get the help they need from medications or cardioversion, Nancy’s heart episodes continued,” says Dr. Pierce. “She was an excellent candidate for a heart-ablation procedure."

Advanced treatment

Dr. Pierce’s experience in heart-ablation procedures spans more than a decade. Until recently, these procedures typically relied on heat to alter the electrical tissue causing the rhythm irregularity.

“With cryoablation, we use freezing,” says Dr. Pierce. “It’s very precise, plus it shortens the procedure. With less time under general anesthesia, patients feel better sooner. Most go home the next day.”

Dr. Pierce began offering cryoablation in 2011 and was the first in North Dakota. He now performs 60 a year.

A life-changing difference

Nancy had never heard of cryoablation but was familiar with Dr. Pierce’s work. An acquaintance in her hometown had excellent results from a pacemaker procedure performed by him.

“When Dr. Pierce said there was an 80 percent chance the cryoablation procedure would work, I was pretty confident,” says Nancy. “I was also very impressed with his extensive experience. I had complete trust in him.”

Nancy underwent cryoablation in Sanford’s Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory in April 2012. Similar to an angiogram the procedure involves threading a small catheter to the heart through a vein in the upper leg. Advanced imaging technology helps pinpoint the areas in need of ablation.

“Absolutely this procedure made a difference,” says Nancy, eight months later.

Except for one baby aspirin a day, she’s been taken off all medications.

“Thanks to state-of-the-art technology and the gifted hands of Dr. Pierce, I have more energy and feel great.” she says.

Dr. Pierce says that’s the best possible outcome. “That’s what medicine is for,” he says. “To hear someone say, ‘Wow, it really changed my life’ … there’s nothing better.”

Let’s go!

It’s early afternoon on a cold January day. Nancy’s at home packing her suitcase for a trip to the West Coast with her husband.

“I feel like I’ve really been freed up to enjoy these retirement years,” she says. “Now I have the get-up-and-go, and that’s exactly what I plan to do. With five children, 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, we have no shortage of activities.”

If heart problems disrupt your rhythm of life, learn about the advanced options available at Sanford. Visit heart.sanfordhealth.org.

Posted Date: March 2013

The Rhythm of Life

Frequent episodes of atrial fibrillation left Nancy Buckeye feeling weak, shaky and worried. An advanced heart procedure gave her the boost she needed. Now she’s back in rhythm, enjoying life.