What is it like to live with atrial fibrillation?

By June Shannon Stroke News   |   28th Nov 2018

Mary Sheehan from Cork talks about her experience of living with atrial fibrillation.

As part of our ‘Prevent a Stroke: Feel the Pulse’ campaign, we spoke with Mary Sheehan, who was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation ten years ago.

Mary Sheehan from Cork was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation at the age of 57. She was among the 50 per cent of people with atrial fibrillation who have no symptoms and therefore, she had no idea that she had the condition.

With atrial fibrillation (sometimes called A Fib) your heart beats in a disorganised and irregular way which can lead to a range of symptoms and potential complications, including stroke, permanent heart damage and heart failure.

If you have atrial fibrillation and are not treated, you are five times more likely to have a stroke. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, with one in four people over the age of 50 at risk of developing it.

Mary was lucky, her atrial fibrillation was picked up as part of a routine medical check-up. However, she didn’t feel very lucky at the time, and described learning about her diagnosis as a “big shock.”

“It was quite frightening at the time because I had never heard of atrial fibrillation whereas at least nowadays there is more awareness of it,” she said.

“I was so scared, for two years I was frightened,” Mary said.

“It was quite frightening at the time because I had never heard of atrial fibrillation whereas at least nowadays there is more awareness of it,”

Mary Sheehan, living with atrial fibrillation

Mary said her cardiologist was very helpful in helping her to deal with her condition.

“I was very lucky with my cardiologist, he did bring me step by step through it and said look, you will have to go on a blood thinner. That frightened me because 10 years ago it was warfarin, which to me was for old people.”

With atrial fibrillation the blood doesn’t flow around the heart as normal and this can cause a churning effect which tends to cause clots, particularly as the blood isn’t moving anywhere.

Warfarin is an anticoagulant which thins the blood and prevents clots forming. It was one of the first anti-clotting agents and has been in use since the early 1950s. While still in use today, warfarin is increasingly being replaced with newer drugs called direct oral anticoagulants or DOACs for AFib.

“I actually used to hide going into the clinic. It sounds so ridiculous now and I laugh myself now because I have one or two friends with it [atrial fibrillation] but in my day, I didn’t tell anybody, it just wasn’t something I shared,”

Mary said that the stress and worry of learning she had atrial fibrillation caused her to suffer from panic attacks which as well as being very debilitating and upsetting, can affect your heart rate.

However, Mary’s cardiologist was able to reassure her that it wasn’t her heart but rather panic attacks from worrying about her diagnosis.

It took some time, but Mary eventually got used to living with and successfully managing her condition.

“My best advice is to reach out, not to hide away from it. It is not that frightening,”

Mary Sheehan, living with atrial fibrillation

“It is part of my life now and I do exactly what I want to do. I have great respect for it. I exercise…I live my life, I forget it at times. I take my two tablets and that’s it.”

Apart from taking daily medication, being careful about her diet – she no longer drinks coffee – and getting regular exercise, Mary said atrial fibrillation does not interfere in her life in anyway.

“At parties I am the first one to be dancing on the table,” she laughed.

Asked what advice she would have for someone who had just been diagnosed and who perhaps was feeling fearful like she was all those years ago, Mary said it was to “reach out.”

She said it was important to talk about the condition and she underlined the importance of having a good relationship with a GP or cardiologist. She also said it was vital to get a good night’s sleep.

“My best advice is to reach out, not to hide away from it. It is not that frightening,” she said.

The good news is that with early diagnosis, atrial fibrillation is treatable.

For more information about atrial fibrillation, see our ‘Prevent a Stroke: Feel the Pulse’ campaign, or call the Irish Heart Foundation’s Heart and Stroke Helpline, Freephone 1800 25 25 50.

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