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James Ferragut, Published July 24 2011

Ferragut: Boomer’s heart still booming

I started having problems with my heart eight years ago. I was a dedicated racquetball player, and there were days that I played so well I felt like I couldn’t lose. But there were other days that by 10 points into the first game, I was out of breath, light-headed and sweating like a Southern diplomat.

I went to a cardiologist for tests, and all indicated atrial fibrillation. Atrial fib is an abnormal heart rhythm, which isn’t life-threatening, but has lifestyle implications. It’s treated with Cumadin (blood thinners) and other meds to contain the rapid quivering of the heart.

After six months of therapy, it looked like I had slipped back into normal rhythm, so I got off the medicine and back to normal … until I landed in a hospital in the Amazon while I was on a mission trip. I went back to the cardiologist and back on the Cumadin therapy. The symptoms of atrial fib continued to become more frequent and more pronounced.

A month ago, I was referred to Dr. Christopher Pierce, who specializes in cardiac electrophysiology at Sanford in Fargo. I had found my guy. Dr. Pierce recommended a catheter ablation, a procedure that involves sending catheters through two groin veins into the heart, finding the areas where the electronic signals are misfiring and zapping them to kingdom come using laser technology.

But Dr. Pierce offered the procedure with a twist: using cryogenic technology (liquid nitrogen) instead of the laser. After explaining the benefits of the procedure, I said, “Sign me up.” On July 12, I became the first patient in North Dakota and the Sanford Health System to undergo this cutting-edge procedure (pun intended).

The operating room looked like NASA headquarters. I’d never seen more high-tech equipment. It looked like a sci-fi movie set.

The gravity of what was about to happen caught me off guard. There were five surgeons and nurses. But the efficiency of their work and the care I was getting while getting prepped for bed were comforting.

Nine hours later, I woke up in the ICU, surrounded by my wife and kids and the best nurses on the planet. Special props go to Heather, my Cardiac ICU nurse who put up with my wise-ass comments and endless questions. By 2 a.m., she and I took a stroll around the ICU floor. I woke early, felt great, ordered vanilla-dipped French toast and was discharged by noon. Two days later, my son Gabe and I went to the “Harry Potter” matinee and then drove to the lake for weekend R&R.

Having just been through the miracle of 21st-century surgery, only a fool wouldn’t reflect on the impact that has on the soul. But that’s for another column.

Just before Christmas last year, my wife learned that she had breast cancer. She went from mammography to biopsy to surgery in 10 days flat. It was Terri’s commitment to getting regularly scheduled Pap smears and mammograms that allowed the Sanford team to catch the cancer early. She is up and running and cancer-free.

This is a shout-out to baby boomers everywhere: We are aging but not getting older. But beware of the changes in your bodies, and never hesitate to see the doctor … especially you thick-headed, manly men.

Finally, I thank Sanford Health. Terri and I have had an amazing eight months, but we couldn’t have been in better hands. I plan on riding this planet another 30 years, and the team at Sanford just gave me my ticket.

Ferragut is a marketing consultant and contributor The Forum’s commentary page.