Are you living with atrial fibrillation?

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Shawn Walsh is living with atrial fibrillation.
Shawn Walsh is living with atrial fibrillation.

Atrial fibrillation is one of New Zealand's fastest growing forms of heart disease.

It is a type of irregular heart rhythm that causes poor blood flow to the body. It affects about four in every 100 Kiwis aged over 65.

The National Heart Foundation is a charity whose mission is to stop Kiwis dying prematurely from heart disease, and to help those with heart disease to live full and productive lives.

The Heart Foundation is sending a clear message to Waikato residents living with atrial fibrillation - 'you are not alone'.

The Hamilton branch of the Heart Foundation is hosting a free information and support session focused on staying well with atrial fibrillation.

Guest speakers will discuss treatments for the condition, lifestyle modifications and the different medications that are used to treat this condition.

There will be plenty of time to ask questions, view resources and talk to other relevant health professionals. Family members are welcome at the event.

The key objectives of the event are to provide reliable and current information about living well with atrial fibrillation and allow attendees the opportunity to connect with others who have atrial fibrillation.

Heart Foundation heart health advocate Cath Battersby said living with heart disease or recovering from a heart event can be lonely and challenging for many people.

"We want to reach out to those families and provide a warm, supportive environment that allows them to hear from experts and meet others who are in a similar situation."

Local cardiologist and heart rhythm specialist Dr Martin Stiles will discuss treatments for atrial fibrillation as well as lifestyle modifications.

Cardiology pharmacist Fiona McNabb from Waikato Hospital will then explore the different medications that are used to treat this condition. Also supporting the event are Sport Waikato, and the Stroke Foundation - atrial fibrillation increases stroke risk.

Shawn Walsh is a Waikato resident who is living with atrial fibrillation. Like many young Kiwis, Shawn Walsh set off for London in his early 20s to further his career, see the world and taste adventure. He never expected his heart to suddenly start playing up.

"I was only 34 when it started. I was that typical Kiwi guy who'd always been pretty active and liked to stay in shape.

"But then I went to London, started catching the Tube and stopped moving as much. I probably had a few more beers than I used to but none of that stuff was different from anyone else I was around. All my mates were doing the same thing and they were okay."

In late 2006, Shawn felt a bad pain in his chest. He got himself to hospital and tests revealed he had atrial fibrillation.

"It wasn't until I presented at hospital with this chest pain that I was diagnosed, but I'd probably been living with it for a number of months. I was in a ward where I was probably the youngest person by 30 years. I was put on drugs to slow my heart rate down and then waited six months for my reboot."

A 'reboot' is electrical cardioversion, a procedure which involves sending an electric shot to the heart to convert an abnormal heart rhythm to a normal heart rhythm.

Shawn has had more than 20 reboots in the past decade, as well as taking countless pills and having ablations to correct his heart rhythm.

"It's largely been managed with medication, but the drugs have become less and less effective so I've gone back into having episodes fairly regularly.

"I had three or four years where I didn't have any problems at all, but then I've been rebooted more than 20 times in the past 10 years."

"AF's a bit strange because it's debilitating but you're still mentally okay, a fully-functioning 34-year-old who's just going really slow," Shawn explains.

Shawn says living with atrial fibrillation is not scary anymore because he knows what's causing his symptoms - but he still hates it.

Ten years on from his diagnosis, Shawn is back living in Cambridge and working as an IT professional.

He's made changes to his lifestyle to help manage the symptoms of AF and improve his health. But without much-needed research and new forms of treatment, there is currently no way to cure AF in some people.

- The Heart Foundation atrial fibrillation session will take place on Wednesday, November 23 from 5.30-7.30pm, at the Link Community Centre, Te Aroha Street, Hamilton. To register for the event contact Cath Battersby cathb@heartfoundation.org.nz or phone 07 852 5145.

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