An ablation helped Eric put AFib behind him and get back in the cockpit
As an Air Force pilot and now commercial aviation pilot, Eric Kirchner needs to be healthy, alert and ready to fly people around the globe. He has been in the skies flying his whole adult life, and one episode of atrial fibrillation could ground him for months at a time.
Atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, is the most common type of heart arrhythmia. It is a malfunction in the heart's electrical system that causes the upper and lower chambers of the heart to be out of sync and beat at an excessively high rate. AFib causes poor blood flow through the heart and to the body and increases your risk for stroke.
Eric is now 62 years old, but his first episode of AFib was 12 years ago. It was like any other day. He was at his desk finishing up some paperwork.
“I suddenly had an unusual sensation in my heart, but I wasn’t in distress,” Eric recalls. “The next morning I still felt the sensation, so I went to my primary care physician’s office.”
Eric didn’t have all the typical symptoms of AFib—uncomfortable irregular heartbeat, weakness, lightheadedness, confusion, or chest pain. He did feel something different with his heart, and he got winded very quickly.
The doctor immediately recognized he was in AFib and told him to go home and pack a bag and go the emergency room for treatment. “I assumed I should go to St. Elizabeth Edgewood,” said Eric. “The doctor agreed that is where he would go if he were having a heart issue.”
At the hospital, Cardiologist Dr. Jeffery Reichard came to check on Eric, and he has been his patient since the first meeting. Eric’s heart went back into normal heart rhythm with medication during his hospital stay, but he couldn’t resume flying for at least three months. After three months without an incident of AFib, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a round of testing to be cleared to fly again.
Eric didn’t have another AFib episode for eight years. Then within 18 months, he had two more episodes. Each time, Eric was grounded for four to five months. Eric felt it was time for a longer term solution—an ablation. Dr. Reichard had talked to Eric about a heart ablation when he had his first incident of AFib.
“Dr. Reichard was great about explaining things in easy-to-understand terms for my wife and me,” said Eric. “When he described an ablation he said, ‘If your child has an ear infection once you treat it with an antibiotic, and maybe the next few times, but at some point, if they are recurring and it is a problem you put tubes in their ears to prevent further episodes.’”
Eric was then referred to Dr. Mohamad Sinno, Electrophysiologist, St. Elizabeth Heart & Vascular Institute, for an ablation.
“Dr. Sinno spent a lot of time with us and explained the procedure thoroughly. He even drew out what was going to happen on a white board in his office,” said Eric. “I was ready to have the surgery because I was feeling great and I wanted to go back to work. I knew I was in good hands.”
According to Dr. Sinno, ablation for atrial fibrillation is a complex ablation procedure. The doctor utilizes catheters that enter at the groin and move into the left atrium of the heart where AFib originates in most patients. Using a 3D mapping system, the doctor guides the catheters and delivers energy to destroy abnormal tissue that is causing AFib, without damaging the function or structure of the left atrium. Dr. Sinno explains, “While it is a complex procedure, ablation for AFib is relatively safe and has a high success rate, especially when done at high-volume centers like St. Elizabeth that specialize in these types of procedures.”
It was only after the ablation Eric thought about the procedure. He says, “It seems like magic to me. They ran a wire up my groin to my heart, did 3D mapping to see where the problem is and they zap it.”
“Today, I am back flying and I am very careful with my caffeine intake,” says Eric. “I am at ease knowing Dr. Reichard, Dr. Sinno and the team at St. Elizabeth will be here for me if I need them again.”