I was eleven when I first noticed the symptoms of SVT. At unexpected times and for seemingly no reason, my heart beat would suddenly leap from it’s normal resting rate to an alarming speed, eventually dying down after 5-30 seconds. Often accompanying this leap in heart rate was a feeling of shortness of breath. I quickly became alarmed as the frequency of this phenomenon increased. After constant reassurance from family and friends that this was a common occurrence, I decided to try to forget about it and live with these occasional leaps in heart rate. Besides, I could easily stop these episodes by holding my breath or “bearing down”, which I would later learn was called a “vagal maneuver” (a maneuver employed to stimulate the vagal nerve, thereby halting the arrhythmia.)
As the years passed, the problem continued to worsen. By my junior year in high school, the episodes would last many minutes, and sometimes hours. My heart rate was much quicker, and my beating heart could be seen through my shirt. After a few trips to the doctor, it was determined that I had a disease called Supraventricular tachycardia.
Supraventricular tachycardia is characterized by a sudden increase in heart rate for a “reason other than exercise, high fever, or stress” (WebMD). It is believed to be caused by faulty electrical connections in the heart. During episodes of SVT, the heart rate can go up to 300 beats per minute.
Once I was diagnosed, I was referred to an electrophysiology specialist in Philadelphia. She explained to me that while not dangerous in itself, along with being extremely uncomfortable, an episode of SVT that lasts too long could cause structural damage to the heart. She informed me that should an episode last longer than 20 minutes, or if there are any signs of distress, I should head to the emergency room to have the arrhythmia taken care of with medicine available there. She told me that there were two courses of action in the long run: medication or a catheter ablation. She explained to me that medication can cause many side effects, and while it may be right for certain situations, she believed a catheter ablation was my best option.
A catheter ablation is performed by inserting catheters into the body, usually through the groin area, and feeding them up to the heart. The electrophysiologist then stimulates the heart to force it into the abnormal heart rhythm and pinpoints its source. A radiofrequency wave is then used to destroy the problem area. She assured me that it was a minimally invasive and routine procedure and that the risks were extremely low. I agreed to have the procedure and it was scheduled for a few months later.
During that time, my SVT completely disappeared. In light of this, we canceled the procedure and hoped it was gone for good.
Sure enough, about 8 months after my canceled procedure, my SVT returned, stronger than ever. I quickly scheduled another surgery, and was put on medications in the mean time. The medications were either ineffective or caused severe side effects, from constant nausea to fatigue and changes in personality. Due to these side effects, my medications were constantly changed over the 4 months leading up to the surgery. During this time, I made a total of 7 trips to the emergency room, where adenosine was usually administered to return my heart beat to normal. At one point, it was so bad that I had to go twice in one day. When my medication was suppressing these episodes, I was constantly nauseous or fatigued.
Eventually the date of the operation came. I was advised not to eat or drink after midnight the night before. I was brought to the hospital in Philadelphia, where I was administered some oral medications before an intravenous line was put in my arm. I fell asleep right away, and the procedure was completely painless. The surgery lasted about 3-4 hours and afterwords I was made to lie in a bed with my legs extended straight for about 6-7 hours. The doctor informed me that they were not able to stimulate the heart for long, but they thought they pinpointed and eliminated the source. I was allowed to go home the same night. Upon returning home, there was slight bruising at the catheter insertion point and it was uncomfortable to walk for a few days. After a week I was able to resume all normal activities.
This is where the story would end for most people, according to my doctor. The success rate for such procedures are considerably high, but for some, like me, this was not the case. A week or so after the surgery, I felt the familiar leap in my heart and it again started to beat at a rapid rate. I informed my doctor, and another surgery was scheduled for the next month.
A few days after this episode, I had another, which I transmitted to the hospital via my heart monitor. They called me later that night and asked me to come in for a 3 day stay. They informed me that on the recording I had transmitted, my SVT deteriorated into atrial fibrillation, and they needed to put me on a new medication while they monitored the side effects.
This new medication caused the worst side effects to date. For the month leading up to my surgery, I was unable to see up close and my personality was greatly affected. I suffered from dizzy spells from time to time, although I never fainted.
A month passed, and I again journeyed to Philadelphia to have another catheter ablation. The procedure leading up the ablation was largely the same, however, my experience in the operating room was starkly different. This time, I was deliberately kept awake, as it was thought that the anesthesia used before could have suppressed my SVT. The heat was also turned up to 80F. The reasoning behind this was to make my body more agitated and therefore more likely to enter an episode of SVT. I was nauseous the entire time because of the anesthesia. The procedure on whole lasted about 8 hours. Unlike the first surgery, I was extremely uncomfortable for the entire duration. The procedure after the surgery and the recovery were much the same, and I was again allowed to go home the same day. The doctors were far more optimistic this time, as they were able to stimulate the SVT for a much longer period of time.
I had absolutely no symptoms for two weeks, however, they returned again. I informed my doctor, and she scheduled me for another surgery to take place about a month later. This third surgery was much the same as the second and equally uncomfortable. This time, however, it is believed to have worked, as it has been over 7 months without any symptoms.
My advice to anyone experiencing any type of heart abnormalities is to immediately seek medical attention, as it could be something far worse. If you think there is something wrong, do not let others tell you that what you are experiencing is normal. If it turns out that you do have SVT, I would highly recommend the catheter ablation procedure. Although my first procedure was not successful, my doctor assures me that I am the exception to the rule and that for most people, it is successful the first time. This is backed up by countless accounts I have heard from people with a similar condition. For most people, the ablation procedure is also similar to my first: quick and painless.
Despite all this, you should always take your doctor’s advice. I am not a doctor. Since every person is different, your doctor will know what is best for your individual situation. Never rely solely on internet sources for your medical advice.