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Sharp Health News

The electrician and the broken heart

June 17, 2016

The electrician and the broken heart

Atrial fibrillation affects millions of Americans. Cardiac electrophysiologist Dr. Charles Athill is inspired by the story of one patient in particular.

“I’m an electrician,” explains Dr. Charles Athill as he stands in front of a room where 125 people have gathered.

As a cardiac electrophysiologist, Dr. Athill specializes in the electrical signals that make hearts beat. Specifically, he performs procedures that re-route these signals when they’ve gone haywire — with the goal of restoring a normal heart rhythm.

On this recent May evening, Dr. Athill and his colleagues from Sharp Memorial Hospital are presenting a seminar on the latest treatments for atrial fibrillation, or AFib. This common heart condition causes an irregular heartbeat due to defects or damage to the heart’s structure. Electrical signals in the upper heart chamber (atrium) fire incorrectly, and as a result, the heart beats rapidly and out of rhythm.

This night, patients and their loved ones have come from across the county, hoping to find the answers they’ve been looking for. Dr. Athill starts by explaining what AFib is, its symptoms and associated risks. He doesn’t just speak; he commands the room. Originally from the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dr. Athill is tall and eloquent, with a booming baritone that is at once confident and soothing.

“Prevent stroke. Prevent stroke. Prevent stroke,” he advises. “These are the top three reasons to treat AFib.”

In fact, for some AFib patients, treatment of symptoms isn’t an issue. Most people experience feelings of a racing, irregular heartbeat or a “flip-flopping” in the chest, but some are unaware of their condition until it is discovered during a physical exam or when they have a stroke.

It’s the increased stroke risk associated with AFib that drives the need for treatment. People with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke. This is because the irregular heart rhythm can cause clots to form. A clot can then travel to the brain where it might block blood flow, causing a stroke.

Dr. Athill repeats his point about preventing stroke several times; it’s clear he’s determined that patients understand. Finally, he reveals why.

“My father had AFib,” he explains. “He was being treated with medication to prevent blood clots, but for some reason he decided to stop taking it. I don’t know why. He suffered a massive stroke, and eventually he died as a result.”

The audience responds with respectful silence, aware that the physician’s passion is driven by his personal experience.

The good news is that Dr. Athill and the team at Sharp Memorial now have the most comprehensive set of treatment options available in San Diego for AFib patients. Medications and catheter ablations can be very successful in controlling heart rhythms. Newer, minimally invasive techniques like Mini-Maze, Hybrid Maze and the WATCHMAN™ device can reduce or eliminate the stroke risk associated with AFib. It’s a message Dr. Athill is proud to convey.

“We’re here to help you,” he says to the crowd as the seminar concludes. “This is about extending your life and improving the quality of your life.”

For the media: To talk with Dr. Athill about AFib and stroke, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com or 858-499-3052.

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