Atrial Fibrillation

September, 2015

‘I’m not going to let warfarin run my life’

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. A usual heart rate should typically be between 60 and 100 beats per minute (BPM). When someone has AF, their heart rate is irregular and can exceed 100 beats per minute. While notable symptoms include shortness of breath, dizziness and tiredness, some people have no idea that they even have AF.

What causes AF?

Put simply, a typical heartbeat involves the synchronised contraction of the heart muscle, which is pushing blood through the chambers in the heart towards the lungs and the rest of the body. If somebody has AF, an irregular rhythm arising from the upper chambers of the heart causes erratic contractions. This leads the upper chambers of the heart to quiver chaotically at rates of up to 600 per minute. Rather than moving forward quickly, the blood then tends to swirl, pool, and clot in a chamber of the heart. These clots can break off and travel around the body, which can be dangerous as they can cause a stroke.

A common misconception is that anticoagulants such as warfarin are used to treat the irregular heart rate in AF patients. Warfarin is actually used to thin the blood and prevent clots from forming. Anticoagulants like warfarin are prescribed to reduce the risk of stroke in AF.

Susan’s story

To help give you an insight into what it’s like to live with AF, we spoke to Susan. Susan’s role as a clerk was a surprisingly physical one, involving rushing from courtroom to courtroom. Sometimes she’d feel particularly breathless, a sensation she describes as feeling ‘like I’d smoked 100 cigarettes in one go’. Naturally, Susan sought advice from her GP, who referred her for further tests. After a thorough check-up it was discovered that Susan’s discomfort was caused by AF.

Searching for a cure

In 1995, Susan underwent an experimental procedure at St George’s Hospital, London, in an attempt to reverse her AF. However, the surgery was unsuccessful.

Susan had to deal with severe AF until 2007, when she had surgery a second time. Known as ‘ablation’, this procedure scars small areas in the heart to prevent the abnormal rhythms from moving through it. It was found that AF had actually caused a clot in the heart.

Life with warfarin

To break down the clot, Susan was immediately prescribed warfarin. This would soon become a permanent fixture in her life.

The impact of being on warfarin? ‘You feel very conscious of it,’ says Susan. Taking warfarin made her much more aware of the effect that other medication and alcohol have on her INR (this stands for international normalised ratio, which is a standard measure of how long the blood takes to clot). Not to mention the levels of vitamin K – which can have an impact on warfarin – in certain green vegetables. The medication also meant Susan had to take extra care when travelling, for example by being sure to take her dose at the same time each day.

Being the character she is, though, Susan wasn’t going to let warfarin run her life. That’s why she self-tests.

How does self-testing help?

Before Susan started self-testing, she found getting appointments at the surgery frustrating and inconvenient. Now that she self-tests, she has far more freedom, and says she’d recommend the option to anyone. The support she has received from her nurses and GP has been great. Susan does make it clear, though, that you have to take self-testing ‘very seriously’ as warfarin is a powerful drug.

All in all, self-testing has given Susan the peace of mind to live life how she wants to.

If you live with AF and self-test (or would like to), why not share your story on our Facebook page?

We would like to thank Susan for sharing her story and providing her insight into living with AF. If you have any questions about AF or warfarin, we would always recommend that you speak to your healthcare professional for medical advice.

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