Grand Forks woman’s road to atrial fibrillation diagnosisNancy Harvey, 72, was in her early 50s when she experienced the first sign that her heart was not working as it should. As a fifth-grade teacher in Thompson, she was walking down a hallway when she fainted.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Nancy Harvey, 72, was in her early 50s when she experienced the first sign that her heart was not working as it should.
As a fifth-grade teacher in Thompson, she was walking down a hallway when she fainted.
“The parent who was walking with me had to haul me into the office,” said Harvey, of Grand Forks. “I got so short of breath.”
By the time her husband, John, picked her up and rushed her to Grand Forks, her heartbeat had returned to normal.
Still, she said, “I was pretty worried.”
Her doctor said her symptoms “were postmenopausal,” she said. “He said it was all in my head.”
Her condition was later diagnosed as atrial fibrillation, a problem that causes the heart to beat irregularly or chaotically. It can lead to stroke or other complications.
In the years that followed, Harvey consulted other doctors. The effects of various prescription drugs and medical procedures “would only last for so long,” she said.
“It finally got to the point where nothing was working.”
She would faint as many as three times in a half-hour, she said. For several years, she was unable to travel.
“I was so weak I had to watch my daughter’s wedding reception in our backyard from my bedroom window.”
She would go down to the basement “and I couldn’t get back up; my husband had to help me,” she said.
It took quite a few years -- as well as assorted medications, medical tests, procedures and hospitalizations -- before Harvey received the correct diagnosis and treatment she needed.
“I don’t know how many times I heard, ‘Nancy, you’re unique. We don’t know what to do with you,’ ” she said.
Finally, she was referred to a heart specialist in Minneapolis who performed a procedure, “ablation,” which essentially creates a ring of scar tissue that controls the path of electrical impulses in the heart. Electricity cannot pass through scar tissue.
After that, “the heart flutter went away, but the atrial fibrillation did not,” she said.
About 2 1/2 years ago, she received a pacemaker. A little over a year ago, she underwent surgery to receive a new heart valve.
Together they are “wonderful,” she said.
She has been prescribed several medications, including a blood thinner that she will have to take the rest of her life, she said. The blood-thinning drug is intended to prevent stroke.
“It’s been a long, long haul,” she said. “I have to attribute my getting better and attitude to my husband.”
John has taken on household tasks to help his wife.
“He buys all the groceries,” she said. “He is not a good cook, but he knows every frozen food that is low in sodium.
“If I go grocery shopping, I’m pretty tuckered out afterward,” she said.
He does the laundry and unloads the bottom rack of the dishwasher because his wife can’t bend over.
‘Great family support’
She also credits “great family support” for the quality of her health now.
Her son, Rick Elliott of East Grand Forks, Minn., calls her daily, she said, and “balls me out” if she is not following medical advice.
She has a special bond with grandson Jonathon, 11, whom she took care of until he was 3, so his mother, Harvey’s daughter, could pursue a college degree.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said.
At one point, when she was taking care of Jonathon, “he wanted to go to the Lake Agassiz School playground so badly” -- a few blocks from her home.
At that time, “I could only walk to the end of the driveway,” she said.
Her grandson kept urging her to go a little farther in each outing.
“Within three days, my grandson had me walking to the park,” she said.
“It gives me chills to think of it. I took care of him (when he was a baby), and he took care of me.”
She said she would encourage others who may be having symptoms similar to hers to see their doctor and, if unsatisfied with the care, to search out another doctor.
“I know there are people out there who don’t know what to do, because I didn’t know what to do,” she said.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”