"It was like a light switch turning on," Sandra explained. "My heart would jump from 80 beats per minute to about 200 beats per minute."
When she was younger and this occurred, Sandra could carry on a conversation and pretend nothing was happening. But as an adult, the experience became more intense. Sometimes she covered it up by pretending to tie her shoe while she waited for the wildly beating heart to settle down. It could last five minutes or even as long as 30 minutes, and when it was done, she was perspiring and exhausted.
"I brought it to the attention of doctors quite often," Sandra said. She had her heart examined with electrocardiograph (ECG) in the doctor's office more than once, but no problem was detected as long as her heart was not racing.
Meanwhile, the episodes continued to get stronger. Finally, her primary care physician recommended she wear a Holter monitor, a small, portable ECG device that recorded her heart's activity continuously for 30 days, while she went about her normal activities. After two tries with the Holter monitor, the abnormal heart rhythm was finally captured on tape, and Sandra was diagnosed with arrhythmia.
Millions of Americans have arrhythmia, most of which are harmless, but certain types of arrhythmia can be life threatening, especially in combination with other heart disease. About 350,000 deaths per year in the United States are attributed to arrhythmias. Sandra's condition was diagnosed as a supraventricular tachycardia, which means that the very fast heart rate was triggered by abnormal electrical impulses originating from her upper heart chambers. It was not a particularly dangerous type. Sandra was investigating her options when she had a frightening wake-up call.
While driving in the car with her 9-year-old daughter, Sandra felt her heart starting to race. She told her daughter, "My heart is racing, I'm going to pull over," but the next thing she knew, her car was up on the curb. Sandra had briefly blacked out. After that, she knew she could no longer live with this problem and risk endangering not only herself, but also her children or others.
Sandra then saw Dr. David Wilber, an electrophysiologist at Loyola University Health System, Maywood, Ill. Physicians at Loyola perform more electrophysiology procedures than any other medical center in Illinois, and Wilber receives referrals for difficult-to-treat arrhythmias from physicians across the nation.
"The heartbeat is controlled by electrical pathways that coordinate muscle contractions," explained Wilber. "Some people are born with extra pathways, some develop abnormal pathways later in life.
"Arrhythmias can be treated with medication, implantable pacemakers or defibrillators," he said. "Supraventricular tachycardia can be treated very successfully with catheter ablation."
In fall 2002, Sandra had an outpatient catheter ablation procedure. Through catheters (small tubes) inserted into arteries in the groin area and neck, Wilber used tiny instruments to identify the abnormal electrical pathway in her heart and ablate (destroy) it with high frequency radio waves.
After the procedure, Sandra said "If I had known how simple this was, I would have done it earlier." She has had no more incidents in approximately two years since the catheter ablation.
"I am absolutely thrilled I had this done," said Sandra. "I had been living in fear after I blacked out in the car. Now I have peace of mind."
Loyola is nationally recognized as a center of excellence for heart and heart surgery, as affirmed by the U.S. News & World Report listing of "America's Best Hospitals," (ranked 28th nationally in 2003; and 25th in 2004.) The publication ranked Loyola as the best heart and heart surgery program in Illinois two years in a row (2003 and 2004). In addition, Solucient, a health data company, ranked Loyola as the top heart hospital in Illinois in both 2003 and 2004.
In October 2004, Loyola opened its new 10,000-square foot Center for Heart and Vascular Medicine, which brings heart and vascular specialists together in one location. This multidisciplinary approach to heart and vascular disease assures that not only the most advanced but also the most appropriate approach to treating each individual will be provided. The facility contains 20 patient exam rooms.
The comprehensive range of services available include: initial screenings, non-invasive diagnostic echocardiograms, vascular ultrasound; diagnostic angiography, catheter ablations; pacemaker/device implantation; carotid, coronary, peripheral, endovascular interventions as well as vascular and cardiovascular and thoracic surgery.
The specialists' close proximity to one another allows collaborative review of patients' tests, diagnoses and treatment options. It also facilitates lifestyle and genetic counseling for family members who are at risk for heart and vascular disease.
Loyola University Health System, a wholly owned subsidiary of Loyola University Chicago, includes Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC), 18 specialty and primary care centers in the western and southwestern suburbs, the Loyola Ambulatory Surgery Center at Oakbrook. LUHS also serves as co-owner-operator of RML Specialty Hospital, a long-term-care facility for ventilator-dependent patients.
LUMC, a private, academic health care institution, is nationally recognized for its specialty care and research in such areas as cancer, cardiology and cardiovascular surgery, pediatrics, neonatology, neurosciences, burn and trauma care and organ transplantation. The 73-acre campus in Maywood, Ill., includes the 523-bed licensed Loyola University Hospital with a Level I trauma center, Russo Surgical Pavilion, Cardiovascular Institute, Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, Ronald McDonald Children's Hospital of Loyola, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola Outpatient Center, the region's largest burn unit and one of the Midwest's largest and most comprehensive organ transplant programs.