A fixed heart rhythm leads to new life

By James Walsh

Minneapolis Star Tribune


Marcus McCleery, the 372-pound version of him, had nothing to look forward to. Suffering from atrial fibrillation, an abnormally rapid beating of his heart that would leave him exhausted, he was so depressed that he did little more than sleep, eat and sag into a basement sofa and play video games until 2 or 3 in the morning.

“I was knocking on 400 pounds’ door — when you lay on the couch all the time and feel defeated,” he said.

Medication didn’t work. Neither did an earlier surgery to correct his heart. Then, three years ago, a cardiologist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis performed an ablation, searing away tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal rhythms.

In the past decade, catheter ablation to correct atrial fibrillation has gone from a novel approach to mainstream treatment. Doctors at Abbott Northwestern’s Minneapolis Heart Institute alone perform the procedure more than 700 times a year.

With McCleery’s normal heart rhythm restored, he had no more excuses. It was time to get off the couch.

At first, Dr. Bill Katsiyiannis told him, start small. “Just move 15 minutes a day.”

Before long, 15 minutes became 20, 20 became 30, 30 became 60. A friend who ran in triathlons convinced McCleery to come watch.

Slowly, surely, a life began to change. McCleery started eating better, smarter. Walking morphed into running — then swimming, bicycling and kayaking. In a year, McCleery was down to 186 pounds. After three years, he’s a fit and muscular 205 pounds, running in triathlons and half-marathons and oozing confidence. He has even launched a website to help inspire others who, like him, have lost hope.

“I got a gift,” he said of that procedure at the Minneapolis Heart Hospital at Abbott Northwestern. “There were no more excuses.”

Millions of people suffer from AF, which can lead to increased risk of stroke and heart failure.

Still, he had tried different diets, and lost weight — only to regain it. He had even had surgery once before, after which he tried to do more healthy things, said his wife, Rebecca. But, after a while, his atrial fibrillation came back.

Then Katsiyiannis tried a new medication — and the ablation.

Sometimes, as Katsiyiannis said, technology “kind of clears away the brush” to give people “a full head of steam.”

So it was with ablation, a treatment in which doctors pinpoint and obliterate extra tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal electrical signals and causes it to beat rapidly and inefficiently.

There are key areas of the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, where abnormal signals are generated. Using a catheter-based device, Katsiyiannis cauterized those areas during a three-hour procedure. McCleery was out of the hospital the next day.

McCleery’s heart rhythm returned to normal.

“There is no doubt this ablation procedure changed his life,” said Matt Lewis, McCleery’s best friend.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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