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No Time for Faulty Wiring

In 2007, a sleep study revealed that retired Air Force Colonel Donald Frew had heart rhythm abnormalities. After further testing, his Williamsburg,VA cardiologist, Dr. Keith Hanger, confirmed that he had atrial fibrillation (AFib or AF) and put him on medications to control the arrhythmia.

A self-proclaimed Energizer Bunny,® the then 77-year-old was determined not to let AFib slow him down. It was with great reluctance that he gave up two of his favorite pastimes, skiing and kayaking.

Atrial fibrillation is the most common abnormal rhythm of the heart. In AFib, the regular electrical currents that travel through the heart and cause the muscle of the heart to contract are irregular and rapid and, as a result, the heart beats irregularly and, usually, rapidly.

"The meds did a pretty good job at first, but periodically I would have episodes and the only way I could get relief was to lay down and try to sleep," said Col. Frew. "I'm not much of a napper but, believe me, when the old ticker starts jumping around in your chest, you'll do whatever it takes to get it to stop."

Col. Frew's episodes became increasingly frequent, and then in 2008, he had a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA), or small stroke. Strokes are not uncommon in AFib patients, in fact, about 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.

It was becoming clear that more aggressive AFib treatment approaches needed to be considered. Dr. Hanger referred Col. Frew to Dr. Ken Ellenbogen at Pauley Heart Center, and after tests and consultations, a catheter ablation procedure was scheduled.

Cardiac ablation is a complex procedure that involves threading a catheter through a vessel and into the heart, tracking down the areas that are causing the irregular heartbeat and destroying them. In patients with atrial fibrillation, these areas may be numerous, requiring specialized equipment to pinpoint and destroy the abnormal circuits.

"It went well. I felt great for about two weeks, and then, bam, the episodes returned," said Col. Frew. "So I got back in touch with Dr. Ellenbogen, I think it was on a Friday, and he said that, because of my age, a second ablation was not recommended. I was really disappointed. Then he called me back on Sunday, said he had done additional research and conferred with some other electrophysiology specialists, and to come on in and we'd talk about another ablation. That's the kind of doctor he is, always thinking about his patients, weekends included."

The second ablation was a complete success and at his 3-month checkup, Col. Frew's medications were reduced and he was taken off Coumadin. "I am heading toward 81 years old and my life is pretty much back to normal, I have lots of projects going and who knows, maybe I'll even get my skis and kayak back. My wife and I are so appreciative of Dr. Ellenbogen and the whole staff at Pauley Heart Center. We've been in plenty of hospitals in our lives and we have never been so impressed with the overall experience. It's reassuring to see a department operating like a well-oiled machine with people where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there! To be cared for by people with compassion and a sense of humor was an added bonus."