It was Christmas Eve 2018 when Sharon Flynn, 46, went to a friend’s house for dinner to celebrate the holiday. After a full meal, she started to feel ill and faint while sitting at the table. She knew something was wrong, and then passed out on the kitchen floor. Flynn has fainted before due to low blood pressure and standing up too fast. But as she began to notice her heart racing, this time felt different. Later, she would learn that she had a heart rhythm disorder called tachycardia.
Connecting the Pieces
After passing out, Flynn was embarrassed but thankful that her friend’s mother, an emergency room nurse, came to her aid. She asked: “Have you had your heart checked lately,” which sparked the first thought this could be heart related.
However, Flynn continued with her holiday festivities and didn’t do anything immediate about her Christmas Eve fainting.
Flynn had just become a National Ski Patroller and was completing an additional certification. This certification would allow her to transport patients in a toboggan. During her training, she was moving an empty toboggan to a chair lift when she began experiencing the same symptoms she’d had a couple of weeks earlier.
“I’m going to pass out,” she told the instructor as she moved out of the lift line to sit down.
This had now happened twice in less than a month. She also noticed several times when she would lay down to sleep, her heart began to race as if she’d been running. Flynn is in good physical shape and always ate healthy. So she was beginning to wonder if she was reacting to stress. She thought, “What in the world is going on? This is really strange.”
A Heart to Heart
The following week, Flynn was at church when she ran into cardiologist Jamie Bourque, MD, a fellow skier, and close friend. When he asked how the ski patrol training was going, she mentioned the fainting and random irregular heartbeat.
Many people get heart palpitations, Bourque explains. Add dizziness, and it becomes concerning but not urgent. But fainting is a major red flag.
Bourque explained why Flynn’s symptoms were worrisome. He also stressed that as a ski patroller, she could be trying to assist people with medical care in below-freezing temperatures, snow, or rain. If she had an episode while on a chairlift or trying to help someone, it could be really bad for her or make things worse for someone else.
“I started to get anxious about when the next episode would creep up on me and realized I needed to get an appointment,” so she told Bourque that she’d be visiting him soon.
Diagnosing a Heart Rhythm Disorder
After Flynn’s first visit with Bourque, she was given an event monitor, called a Holter monitor, that would monitor her heart rhythm continuously for 30 days.
A Holter monitor is a small, battery-powered device that measures heart activity, including rate and rhythm and is attached to a patch adherent to the skin near your heart. It identifies and stores concerning heart rhythm recordings constantly and can also store the rhythm during any symptoms or throughout a spell of passing out.
Later, Bourque called Flynn with the results of the heart monitor. “Well, it looks like you are having an abnormally fast heart rhythm,” he explained. After the call, he ordered an ultrasound of the heart. The ultrasound showed that Flynn had a low cardiac output. She later underwent additional testing with an EKG, MRI, and blood work. These tests would provide details about what exactly was causing the abnormal cardiac output, the low blood pressure, and irregular rhythm.
Flynn said, “All my life, I was told I had low blood pressure, and I chalked up occasional lightheadedness to that. But this experience taught me something else could be causing the low blood pressure.” Flynn suddenly realized that little things she had learned to live with, like a sudden racing heart when trying to fall asleep, were actually symptoms indicating an underlying problem that needed to be addressed.
The Rhythm Problem
Bourque found that one part of her heart was causing an irregular electrical signal in the upper left chamber. He diagnosed Flynn with supraventricular tachycardia, a common and easily treatable heart rhythm disorder. Then he referred her to a rhythm specialist, Andrew Darby, MD.
Heart Disease Prevention
No matter your age, checkups and screenings can keep you heart-healthy.
Bourque shares that 35 people out of 100,000 will develop this condition. It can happen at any age but is particularly common after age 50 and isn’t hereditary. This heart rhythm disorder increases the sensitivity of the heart tissue causing fast heartbeats. Symptoms vary by each individual, but you may experience a racing heart, dizziness or lightheadedness, shortness of breath, fainting, or chest pain. Some things can make symptoms worse:
- Drugs or supplements
- Having an abnormal thyroid
- Lack of sleep
- Increased age
Luckily, supraventricular tachycardia isn’t life-threatening, but it can cause injuries and trips to the emergency room. The best way to prevent this heart rhythm disorder is by staying heart healthy!
Treating Supraventricular Tachycardia
The first option to treat the disorder is medication (beta-blockers), but they can have side effects. Flynn was about to leave for a ski trip at a high altitude with her husband and planned to take Acetazolamide to prevent altitude sickness. Bourque suggested these two medications should not mix, so she declined the beta-blocker. She fortunately enjoyed her trip without experiencing any symptoms, as this condition can be random and unpredictable.
A catheter ablation was the second option Darby presented. This involved identifying the electrical impulses' exact location causing the abnormal rhythm and then burning that tiny part of heart tissue to remove the abnormality.
Almost a year after that Christmas Eve at her friend’s house, Flynn scheduled her ablation surgery. Doctors used x-rays to guide a small catheter through blood vessels, stimulated the heart to reproduce the irregular rhythm, then burned the tiny section of heart tissue. The procedure takes several hours, but she was awake for the whole thing.
It was an outpatient procedure, so she planned to go home that evening, but she was not prepared to be so out of it after surgery. It was still major trauma to the heart, and she took a few days off from work. Flynn’s doctor also advised her to avoid stairs initially, as they could cause bleeding at the catheter entry site in her groin.
Sometimes this surgery doesn’t get results or requires multiple tries. Thankfully, besides a lot of bruising and a few days off her feet, Flynn’s procedure has had excellent results. She hasn’t had any fainting episodes, feeling lightheaded, nor has she felt a sudden racing heart since the surgery.
Feeling Heart Healthy
“I’m so glad I opted for cardiac ablation instead of taking daily medication. I am a big fan of trying to fix a problem instead of covering it up. And Bourque and Darby were able to do just that,” she shares. She continues her active lifestyle running, hiking, biking, and skiing with her family.
Bourque advises anyone who has fainting spells to seek attention from their primary doctor. Some may need to see a cardiologist for further evaluation. Many fainting spells come from irregular low blood pressure, especially on standing.
He recommends getting up slowly and deliberately in this instance, staying well-hydrated, and considering compression stockings if these other factors don’t solve the problem. While they may not need to be totally avoided, reduced consumption of caffeine and alcohol can also help in these situations.