How to Handle a Diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation

Leslie Lafayette Health Guide August 13, 2011
  • Whenever I go to a doctor, I expect a clean bill of health. In this, I suspect I'm not very different from most people. Even if a symptom is bothering me and I've managed to convince myself that it's serious - the stomach ache that means cancer, the dizzy spell that means stroke (you know, the self-diagnoses we make when our worrywart minds get out of control) I still, in my heart of hearts, fully anticipate that my physician will reassure me.

     

    No, he'll say with a kindly chuckle, it's just a stomach ache, nothing more. Just take it easy on the acid-y foods and you'll be fine.

     

    That's why I was so surprised when I got the call to come back to the cardiologist's office.

     

    I had left because the young woman who took my ekg in the doctor's absence indicated that it "looked normal" and of course, I thought, what else could it be? I was just stressed, so I gladly walked out of the office and serenely drove home, only to find a message on my voicemail telling me to return to the office  because the doctor wanted to see me. Being asked to return indicated that something was surely amiss, and as I shared with you last week, the cardiologist came straight to the point, telling me I had an abnormal heart rhythm, atrial fibrillation.

    How do you deal with a potentially life-changing diagnosis? Are you one of those stoic individuals we see in movies, who say "Give it to me straight, Doc. I can take it!" 

     

    Well, I'm not. 

     

    I want plenty of bedside manner when the news isn't good. I want a doctor who reassures me and presents the positive side of the diagnosis ("Well, you've broken your leg, and your arm, but speaking just for myself, I really like what you've done with your hair.")

     

    This cardiologist didn't believe in sugar coating anything. "Well it's atrial fibrilation, and while we can manage that, we need to know what's caused it. I know you'll want to know the truth," he assured me.

     

    I borrowed a famous line by Jack Nicholson. "I can't handle the truth," I told him. Of course I was trying to be funny, but he didn't laugh. So I changed cardiologists. I changed mostly because I wanted someone who specialized in arrythmias (called an electrophysiologist) but also because I wanted a doctor who was on the same page I was - in complete denial. Not really, but I wanted him or her to appreciate the tender complexities of patient interaction. And my new doctor did.

     

    He began by explaining exactly what atrial fibrillation was and why it was important to try to restore a normal (sinus) rhythm. He would be doing a series of tests including an electrocardiogram which would ultimately indicate that leaking in the mitral valve was probably the culprit.

     

    How did the diagnosis play out?  I learned to live with the atrial fib and calm down about it. I was reassured by my doctor that it was not a life-threatening arrythmia. I also knew that I scored fairly low in the indicators that make a stroke more likely.  Unlike many others, I was willing to try to live with atrial fibrillation and manage the symptoms and heart rate rather than go through what I considered potentially dangerous and scary treatments to convert it.  My doctor allowed me plenty of time to live with the condition, study about it, and come to my own conclusions. And that's how I wound up with my cardioversion. The moment I felt my heart back in normal sinus rhythm, I knew I had turned a corner in my diagnosis and would be far more willing to try various treatments and drugs to remain in NSR. My short list of tips for dealing with a diagnosis like this: give yourself time for it to sink in; ask all the questions you need to and more later; use online tools and references; talk to others with the same condition; don't be afraid to change doctors if you feel it's best for you.