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“I have no symptoms of AFib”

Arizona-based Paul Marvin just turned 79 several months ago and feels pretty good.

“I have atrial fibrillation,” he says, “but I’ve never felt a thing. I’ve had no symptoms, ever.” 

His AFib was caught during an annual physical almost 30 years ago—and Paul didn’t believe it at the time. “I remember thinking, ‘Really? I don’t feel a thing,’ says Paul, who shared his skepticism with his doctor at the time. “I told him that I didn’t have AFib, that I was healthy, working out, and feeling fine.”

His doctor put him on a holter monitor the next morning—and Paul was instructed to call the office with the digital results from the monitor at two points the next day: lunchtime and dinnertime.  

“I went about my work and didn’t worry about it. Then at noon I looked at the counter and called the doctor’s office with the results: 6,” says Paul. “Then after dinner that night, I called them again with the results: 5.” The nurse told him to come in the next morning to go over the results with the doctor.

At his appointment, Paul remembers asking, “Doc, how did I do?” making a point to tell the doctor that he had felt great the entire previous day while wearing the monitor. The doctor’s response: “You flunked. 

You went into atrial fibrillation 11 times. If you don’t go on medication, you’ll end up dying from this.” Paul’s response: “Well, if it’s a choice between dying and taking medication, I’ll choose the medication.” He’s been on the medication ever since.

Approximately 40 percent of people with atrial fibrillation have asymptomatic or silent AFib. Not only do people with this type of AFib have no symptoms, but their irregular heartbeat can also come and go—making it hard to detect on a regular exam. People who have it are five times more likely to have a stroke than those who are symptomatic as they’re less likely to get treated for their AFib. Home detection devices, such as heart monitoring apps and smart watches, can help: by regularly checking the heart rhythm, these digital advances can alert patients—and their doctors—of a potential problem. 

“In the upper left portion of my heart, I have an outpouching [left atrial appendage],” explains Paul. “It’s an area of my heart with a weakened wall where blood accumulates and isn’t able to be pumped out. The problem is that if the blood isn’t moving and is pooling in this area, it can easily coagulate, causing a clot that could result in a stroke and/or a heart attack. The medication helps prevent that.”

Fast forward to today: Paul recently had a procedure to help close off his left atrial appendage, reducing his stroke risk and helping him to eventually get off the blood thinners he’s taking. But, as Paul says, “I’ll always continue to have an irregular heart rhythm and will always need to keep an eye on it.”