A Second Chance to Run

Since I know that some of you are concerned about the condition of my health, I guess a short update is called for. So here we go:

I have been a long-distance runner for many years, and while I may not be very fast (my best Marathon time was 4:14) running is very much a central part of my life.  I routinely wear a heart monitor to check my progress, and in June the device started to show absurdly high hearth rates of 200 or more beats per minute. Of course, a 61 year-old heart simply can’t beat that fast, especially not for over half an hour and more, so there had to be some other explanation.

In fact it turned out that I suffer from auricular or atrial fibrillation, which doctors often jokingly refer to as “sick sinus syndrome”. This happens when the heart gets confused by signals originating in the major blood vessels leading to the two upper chambers (atria) of the heart. As I now know, about 2 to 3 million people in Germany alone suffer from this condition, which causes shortness of breath and a feeling of restriction (“belt around your chest”), both of which you don’t really want if you are running 42 kilometers (26 miles).

Actually, there is a serious danger of sick sinus leading to a stroke since small blood clots can form in the chamber if it is not completely evacuated, so I seriously recommend seeing a doctor if this happens to you.

Fortunately, I was referred to probably the best heart specialist in Germany, Prof. Thomas Ischinger, who called in his colleague Prof. Thorsten Lewalther, who is the leading expert on a procedure called “catheder abalation” during which one or more flexible tubes are guided into the heart. High-frequency electrical impulses are then used to ablate (destroy) the abnormal tissue that is causing the wild heartbeat.

The operation takes about 3 to 4 hours and is performed under light anesthesia. Normally, you get to leave the clinic after a day or two. In my case, however, there was a rather serious complication: On the day before the operation while I was being pre-examined by Prof. Lewalther, I suffered a mild stroke – exactly what the operation was supposed to stop. Bad luck – if we had scheduled the operation 24 hours earlier, nothing would have happened. As it was, I was twice lucky, first that I happened to be surrounded by heart doctors when it happened and second that only a very small region of my brain was affected, namely the vision center, causing a slight impairment of sight in my right eye – sort of an enlarged “blind spot” which does not bother me at all since, thanks to the miracle of stereoscopic vision (we have two eyes, after all!) I can see everything I used to, and can both read and write just like before.

Anyway, last week I went in for our second attempt, which proved extremely successful. It also proved to be extremely stimulating since the operation was essentially performed in public: The Isar Hearth Clinic had recently purchased an ultra-modern laser ablation apparatus which is a huge improvement over conventional systems because it allows the surgeon to insert a small camera directly into the heart so he can really see what he’s doing (as opposed to staring at a grey, two-dimensional x-ray screen).

Prof. Lewalther asked me if it was okay for some journalists to attend, and being a journalist myself I said yes, of course. Anyway, in the end some 10 or 12 writers, photographers and cameramen crowded into the operating theater as I lay there waiting for the anesthetist to put me under the ether, and when I woke up someone stuck a microphone under my nose and asked me how I felt (“drugged” was my reply).

My friend Michael Kausch, a well-known German blogger, was also there, and it is him we have to thank for coining a rather neat expression that perfectly describes what went on here: “First we had social media”, he twittered straight from the operating table, “now we have social medica” As in: Invite all your friends to your operation. (Bring your own drinks.)

BTW: Here’s a link to his blog, czyslansky.net; it’s in German, but at least you can enjoy the pictures…)

All that now remains is to see whether the procedure really works. You’ll know if and when I post the results of my next marathon. I am already registered for Berlin 2012. Just keep your fingers crossed, will you?


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