Swimmer overcomes atrial fibrillation with gold medal glory

Andrew, 58, was training for a triathlon when he had his first occurrence of atrial fibrillation, causing palpitations and shortness of breath.

Andrew, 58, has always been a competitive swimmer and is a winner at the Royal Navy Masters Open competition. What’s remarkable is he won these medals after heart surgery.

Back in 2014, Andrew was triathlon training. One of the exercises while swimming included hypoxic breathing, breathing every 3, 5, 7 and 9 strokes in freestyle. Hypoxic breathing can put a strain on the heart and it was during this intensive training that Andrew suffered the start of a setback. This was the first time Andrew had worrying symptoms. "I immediately felt something was not right and stopped swimming. I didn’t have pain, but had palpitations and a shortness of breath. After a while, my heart settled down.

Andrew wasn’t having a heart attack but he had his first occurrence of atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation (also called Afib or AF) is a heart condition that causes an irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate. It occurs when the electrical impulses in the top two chambers of the heart (atria) become chaotic, causing the heart to quiver or twitch (fibrillate). These impulses are then sent to the heart’s lower chambers (ventricles) causing the heart to beat rapidly and irregularly.

Andrew’s diagnosis of atrial fibrillation

Andrew’s symptoms of palpitations and shortness of breath was a major concern so he went to see a cardiologist at a private hospital in Bristol. Following his consultation, he was diagnosed with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation (episodes of AF that come and go, usually lasting for a few minutes to hours). Andrew was offered a cardiac ablation to correct the abnormal heart rhythms of AF.

The ablation operation was performed, but his irregular heartbeats returned after six to eight weeks. Over the years, Andrew went through multiple surgeries to fix his AF, but it kept coming back. He managed to stay active by swimming, but he was always wary of his heart and condition, knowing it could trigger his AF at any time. "For some time, I still struggled with AF even after multiple surgeries. It would occasionally rear its ugly head and last for longer each time, leaving me with a racing heart and sleepless nights. I was very aware of my condition, and I was desperate for it to be corrected," Andrews states.

Convergent ablation surgery

After considering his options, Andrew decided to seek out a different private cardiologist. He concluded that the best option would be The Harley Street Clinic, which was classified as 'Outstanding' by the Care Quality Commission. Andrew says "I knew that if I wanted the best outcome, I needed to go to the best place. The Harley Street Clinic had outstanding ratings and some of the top cardiologists." Andrew went to see Dr Oliver Segal, Consultant Cardiologist and Electrophysiologist at The Harley Street Clinic. Dr Segal specialises in heart conditions, particularly AF, arrythmias and catheter ablation.

As Andrew’s episodes became more persistent, Dr Segal recommended him for a Convergent ablation procedure, designed for people with long-standing persistent atrial fibrillation and especially when the left atrium of the heart is enlarged. "When I met Andrew for the first time, he had already undergone three AF ablation procedures under two different cardiologists. He was still struggling with AF and I knew he needed something more than just a repeat procedure, so I recommended the hybrid surgical-endocardial Convergent AF ablation approach that Mr John Yap and I could offer as giving him the best chances of success," states Dr Segal. Convergent ablation is where cardiac surgeons and cardiologists work together to first ablate the outside of the back wall of the left atrium and then perform an endocardial ablation (ablation from inside of the heart).

Dr Segal worked closely with Mr John Yap, Consultant Cardiac Surgeon and the co-founder of London Heart Specialists at The Harley Street Clinic, who specialises in the surgical and endovascular treatment of valvular heart conditions. Dr Segal and Mr Yap agreed a date for the first part of the procedure. Andrew underwent convergent ablation surgery at The Harley Street Clinic in 2021. "I was in intensive care for just over 12 hours. The Harley Street Clinic staff were amazing. They exceeded my expectations." recalls Andrew. Two months later, Andrew underwent the second part of the procedure, the endocardial, with Dr Segal with extensive ablation inside the left atrium. He was able to go home the same day.

Andrew's recovery and back to winning ways

Since the procedure, Andrew hasn’t experienced any atrial fibrillation episodes. "I currently do not have to take any medication or supplements. I keep an eye on my caffeine and alcohol levels but this hasn’t been a problem. I was back to normal in a relatively short time. I'm still cautious about putting any strain on myself but I have that competitive edge, I don’t even like people going past me in the pool when I’m training," jokes Andrew.

To this day, Andrew is now swimming at almost the same speed he had before the condition and even won competitions. What’s remarkable is that in February 2023, he is proud to have won two golds in the relay and a silver medal in the 200 metres freestyle. He narrowly missed out on two bronzes in the 400 metres swim and 50 metres sprint, finishing tenths of a second away.

"I’m so happy to be able to still swim four or five times a week, at about 10km per week on average. It's something I enjoy doing, both training and competing for the Royal Navy Swimming Club."

Dr Segal is also as pleased as Andrew. "I'm really delighted with the outcome of Andrew's treatment and his swimming successes. It's a testament to the team approach at The Harley Street Clinic and their experience in dealing with complex problems in people who haven't found success at other centres."

Andrew is grateful the transforming procedures by both Dr Segal and Mr Yap have allowed him to get back to normal, and not worry about his heart health. "To look after my health, I’ll go to what I consider to be the best place in the country, and if that means I've got to travel to do that, I will."

Find out more about our Cardiac Care Services

More patient stories

Yvette's story: From back pain to hip replacement surgery

Yvette's story: From back pain to hip replacement surgery

Yvette (54) a journalist from Kent, started experiencing pain in her hip seven years ago in 2015. An ex-national gymnast who had been incredibly active and flexible her whole life, Yvette felt concerned about the growing discomfort impacting her quality of life, and so sought help from her GP.

A new hip and straight back into the spin of things

A new hip and straight back into the spin of things

Michael's MAKO hip surgery to treat his arthritis

Michael's MAKO hip surgery to treat his arthritis

73 year-old Michael, an avid walker and charity worker, was diagnosed with arthritis in January 2021. After facing long waiting times and increasing pain that was becoming more frequent, he started to look elsewhere for treatment.

This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.