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Patient Stories

Finding her Rhythm

For more than a decade, Nicole Smith, 33, of Lynn suffered from what she thought were panic attacks. At least once a month, without any advance warning, her heart would race uncontrollably for short bursts of time—usually just a few minutes—leaving her a bit dizzy and lightheaded when it stopped. A physician she saw as a teenager prescribed an anti-anxiety medication to help her manage her stress. The problem was, Smith wasn’t feeling particularly stressed at the time and the anti-anxiety medication made her tired. Not quite sure how best to proceed, she resigned herself to just “living with it.”

In 2009, however, Smith began to reevaluate her line of thinking when she experienced a longer and more pronounced episode of arrhythmia and called 911. Through tests performed in the emergency room, she learned that her symptoms were not related to panic attacks, but rather to a heart arrhythmia called supraventricular tachycardia (SVT). Three years later, an even more severe episode—this one causing her heart rate to spike to over 250 beats per minute (the normal heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute) and lasting more than 20 minutes—sent Smith to the hospital yet again.

“I had a proper diagnosis in 2009, but because my episodes were usually mild and manageable, I never followed up with a cardiologist,” says Smith.

A registered nurse who works for a home healthcare agency and the single mother of a toddler, Smith says she was also too busy caring for others to think about caring for herself.

“I feel like a weight has been lifted off my back. Before the ablation procedure, I lived in fear that an episode might strike at any time.”

After her second trip to the emergency room, she knew it was time to take action. The thought of another major episode became a constant worry. As a runner and all-around fitness buff, she also found herself holding back from athletic pursuits. She scheduled an appointment with NSMC cardiologist Nathan Van Houzen, M.D., a specialist in the diagnosis and treatment of heart rhythm disorders, to discuss her options.

“SVT is an abnormally fast heart rhythm that starts in the atrium, or upper chambers of the heart. It is often caused when a patient has an extra electrical connection between the upper and lower chambers of the heart,” explains Dr. Van Houzen. “When the extra connection is triggered, the heart races. Some people are born with the condition, but it doesn’t manifest until later in life, as it did with Nicole. It isn’t life-threatening, but the symptoms can progress over time and it can be very disruptive to a person’s lifestyle,” he says.

After consulting with Dr. Van Houzen, Smith decided to have cardiac ablation to treat her condition.

“Cardiac ablation is a procedure used to treat a number of different heart arrhythmias that is highly successful in correcting SVT,” says Dr. Van Houzen. “During the procedure, we use catheters—long, flexible tubes inserted through a vein in the patient’s groin and threaded up to the heart—to selectively destroy the extra connection that is triggering the abnormal heart rhythm.”

Performed at NSMC Salem Hospital in August of 2012, Smith’s ablation procedure took under three hours to complete and, after just one night of recovery in the hospital, she was back home. She has not had a single episode of arrhythmia since.

“I feel like a weight has been lifted off my back,” says Smith. “Before the ablation procedure, I lived in fear that an episode might strike at any time. Whether I was playing with my son, working out at the gym or out on a run, it was always in the back of my mind. Now, I never think about it. I no longer hold myself back in any way.”