Abu Dhabi: Asma, a 41-year-old Zumba instructor, was attending a fitness class in 2017 when she began to experience chest pain and shortness of breath.
“I was attending a morning class, which I don’t normally do. Suddenly I had chest pain and difficulty breathing. Noticing how pale I was, people suggested that I had low blood sugar because I had not had breakfast. After a while the symptoms disappeared and I felt good and I didn’t think about it anymore, ”she says.
A few months later, Asma began to experience the same symptoms again. Her heart began to beat and she felt that she could no longer breathe. As she was not exercising as in the previous incident, she became more worried and rushed to the CCAD emergency room. Upon her arrival, caregivers immediately realized the gravity of her situation and began working to reduce her accelerated heart rate and stabilize her. After Asma recovered from the episode, she was told to follow up with a cardiologist as soon as possible.
Doctors at the Abu Dhabi-based Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi (CCAD) are pointing out the case for a reason. Like this Abu Dhabi resident and fitness instructor, there might be others whose heart issues appear unexpectedly. In fact, a 2019 survey by the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi found a significant lack of awareness of the risk factors and symptoms of heart disease unique to women.
In Asma’s case, she was diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that can make the heart beat more than 200 times per minute. In contrast, the heart rate of a healthy adult typically ranges from 60 to 100 beats per minute.
Asma was given medication to slow her heart rate, which she could take if she had another episode. “I thought it might be something I would live with because it didn’t sound dangerous. A few months later I had another episode at home but after taking the medicine it was quickly gone. However, unlike the first few times, my heart felt different afterwards, as if it wasn’t keeping a regular rhythm anymore, ”she says.
Arrhythmia is treatable
Given the change in her symptoms, Asma was referred to an electrophysiologist who diagnosed her with a form of arrhythmia called AV Nodal Re-entry Tachycardia (AVNRT). Her rapid heartbeat was caused by an electrical loop in a specific part of her heart, an abnormality three times more common in women than in men.
“As a fitness instructor concerned with leading a healthy lifestyle, Asma doesn’t fit the classic image of a patient with heart disease. However, it is important for people to realize that arrhythmia can affect anyone of any age, with some forms affecting women more often than men. Fortunately, these conditions can be treated with a safe and fast procedure that cures it completely, ”said Dr. Mohamed Al Jaabari, electrophysiologist at CCAD.
Minimally invasive procedure
Given her new diagnosis, Asma was a candidate for a minimally invasive ablation procedure to correct the part of her heart causing the stray signals and cure her condition. However, it would take more than a year for her to agree to undergo the procedure.
“I have to admit I was scared of the prospect, but to be honest I didn’t feel anything during or after the operation. I was back in class a few weeks later and I don’t have the constant worry I had before. My life has changed completely since the procedure. I have friends with the same disease who are still scared, but it’s the best decision I’ve made, and I encourage others to do the same, ”she said.
Take small steps
CCAD is encouraging people to take small steps towards a healthier heart with a new awareness campaign, “What makes your heart beat?” Residents can find more information on cardiovascular disease, risk factors, treatment options and tips for healthy living at heartbeat.clevelandclinicabudhabi.ae.