For Carthage resident Robert Gordon, an unexpected bout with COVID-19 revealed something even more unexpected: atrial fibrillation, also called A-fib. The Moore County native told his story to urge others experiencing unexplained symptoms not to wait and contact their doctor right away.
‘You don’t look right.‘
On June 25, Robert started feeling bad. He went to his long-time primary care physician, Thomas Leonard, M.D., with FirstHealth Family Medicine in Carthage. Robert was fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and didn’t expect that to be his diagnosis, but it was.
Robert’s main COVID-19 symptoms ended after a week, but horrible fatigue lingered. He figured it was related to COVID-19 and would perk up once he got back to work. The 67-year-old returned to his job as an advertising sales director at WFJA & WWGP Radio in Sanford but lasted for only a half day. He was exhausted. When he arrived home, his wife, Debbie, looked at him and said, “You don’t look right.”
Robert returned to Dr. Leonard to discuss his situation. Dr. Leonard detected a fast heartbeat and conducted an electrocardiogram, also known as EKG or ECG. The test of Robert’s heart revealed A-fib, another surprise for Robert because he had always been active and healthy.
What is atrial fibrillation?
A-fib happens when the heart’s two upper chambers (atria) beat irregularly, and blood doesn’t flow as it should to the two lower chambers (ventricles). It’s the most common type of heart arrhythmia, a condition in which the heart beats too quickly, too slowly or in an irregular way. While some people with A-fib can feel their heart pounding or fluttering, others may experience only shortness of breath or weakness. Some people have no symptoms at all.
A major risk of A-fib is stroke. Since A-fib causes poor blood flow, blood can pool in the heart and turn into a clot. If the clot enters a blood vessel and blocks oxygen-rich blood from reaching the brain, it can result in a stroke. A-fib can also increase the risk of heart failure and other heart-related conditions.
‘Atrial fibrillation seems to take advantage of stressful situations.’
Dr. Leonard directed Robert to go straight to FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, where he met interventional and structural cardiologist Sun Moon Kim, M.D.
“Atrial fibrillation seems to take advantage of stressful situations,” said Dr. Kim. “While COVID-19 likely did not cause Robert’s A-fib, the stress that COVID caused on his body may have aggravated his A-fib to the point that he started experiencing symptoms, like fatigue.” Dr. Kim added that it’s common for patients to learn that they have A-fib while experiencing infections, surgeries, or other stressful situations, either emotional or physical.
Robert spent four days in the hospital while Dr. Kim and other specialists evaluated him and determined the best treatment plan. Sometimes, resolving underlying health issues can also resolve A-fib or make it more treatable. Since Robert’s A-fib symptoms were relatively mild, Dr. Kim recommended medication while Robert continued to recover from COVID-19. The hope was that the A-fib would resolve itself.
After four weeks, Robert returned to Moore Regional Hospital’s campus, this time to Reid Heart Center, for an evaluation. He learned that he was still in A-fib and had added a mild heart flutter, a condition similar to A-fib but not as aggressive.
“I was impressed with Dr. Kim before, but even more so during this evaluation,” Robert said. “Right in front of me, Dr. Kim called another cardiologist to consult about my condition.” What Robert didn’t know at the time is that doctors throughout the FirstHealth system and beyond frequently collaborate about patients’ situations, determining as a team the best approach for each individual.
Robert’s care team continues to monitor and treat his atrial fibrillation with a variety of therapies as needed.
FirstHealth’s approach to atrial fibrillation
Dr. Kim said that people with mild or well-controlled A-Fib can be monitored and treated by their primary care physicians or cardiologists. For those with more difficult or persistent cases of A-fib, the FirstHealth cardiovascular team of cardiologists, nurse practitioners, electrophysiologists and surgeons provide the most advanced treatment methods available. Treatment options include:
Medications that control the heart rate and rhythm, and drugs that thin the blood to prevent blood clots and a stroke
Electrical cardioversion, an electrical shock to restore a normal rhythm
Catheter ablation that sends energy through tiny, hollow tubes to destroy the tissue causing the arrhythmia
MAZE procedure in which a surgeon creates a maze of scar tissue that helps the heart’s electrical impulses travel correctly
Pacemaker, usually used to also treat a slow heart rate
‘Call your doctor immediately because it might not just be fatigue.‘
“I never had any heart conditions before this, so it’s really thrown me,” said Robert. He still gets tired but has more energy than before. “I look forward to getting back to normal soon because I need to keep up with my scouts.” He’s been a Boy Scouts scoutmaster in Carthage for more than 20 years.
Robert encourages others experiencing long-term, unusual fatigue to get it checked out. “Call your doctor immediately because it might not be just fatigue,” he said.
To learn about leading-edge heart care in the Sandhills, visit www.firsthealth.org/heart.