When you know something is off with your health, you need your doctor to listen—really listen. And that's what the heart experts at The Christ Hospital Health Network did for Steve Alexander, a 49-year-old firefighter from Green Township.
At work, Steve enters burning buildings, battles thick smoke and raging heat, and climbs stairs—all while carrying a heavy fire hose and wearing layers of protective gear.
"Firefighting work totally suits me. I love my job, and I'm committed to giving 100% every day," says Steve.
About five years ago, Steve suddenly found himself unable to catch his breath during a training session. "Usually, the drills were pretty simple for me, like carrying a fire hose and running up three flights of stairs. But this time, it felt like I was suffocating. My heart was pounding, and it felt like I could pass out."
Caring for the heart of a firefighter
Doctors at The Christ Hospital diagnosed Steve with atrial fibrillation, a quivering, irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke and heart failure.
To restore his heart's proper rhythm, they treated Steve with catheter ablation, a procedure that uses radiofrequency energy to destroy a small area of heart tissue that causes rapid, irregular heartbeats.
Initially, Steve felt better, but his symptoms returned and prevented him from serving as an active-duty firefighter. Even a short walk required hours of rest. As months went by, this gregarious first responder became worried. "I can admit it now, and I probably hid it well, but I was depressed over my inability to perform my job."
Getting to the heart of a complex medical mystery
What was causing Steve's profound lack of strength and energy? And why did his symptoms return after ablation treatment? Joseph K. Choo, MD—an interventional cardiologist and co-director of the Structural Heart and Valve Center at The Christ Hospital—was determined to find out.
Dr. Choo took time and focused on Steve's symptoms and the demands of his job.
"We have a commitment to understand that our patients are the ones who can give us the most information," says Dr. Choo. "We listen carefully, take their issues seriously and spend whatever time is needed to understand their situations as thoroughly as possible."
Dr. Choo explained that the ablation procedure creates a communication hole between the left and right chambers of the heart. In most patients, the hole heals and closes after the procedure, enabling the heart to beat in a regular, rhythmic fashion. However, Dr. Choo concluded that Steve was the rare exception.
An expert diagnosis and solution for Steve's heart
An open communication—that proves no challenge for most patients—was likely causing a serious issue for Steve.
"Once we made that determination, then I was able to step in and take care of it," Dr. Choo says.
In September 2019, Dr. Choo performed an outpatient procedure to repair the hole and help Steve's heart beat more regularly.
For Steve, the procedure was a life-changing miracle. "I was living with the fear that I may never do my job anymore. That was a horrible feeling, even worse than the weakness and inability to function."
Saving lives again
Steve is back on active duty—fighting fires and helping people. He says, "Now I walk six miles every morning. I am feeling good and loving life."
"We were at a five-story apartment building with a fire on the fourth floor, and my partner and I found a lady in the building. We carried her down three flights of steps," remembers Steve. "I couldn't have done it before Dr. Choo performed this procedure. And at that moment, I realized how impactful this is—not only to myself, but to the people we serve."
Steve's story gets even better
Steve now cares for the community in another way too. He works part-time at The Christ Hospital Heart & Vascular Center, as a technician who administers a special treatment for angina chest pain, takes vital signs, verifies medication and instructs patients about risk factors.
"I couldn't be more excited to be working with the doctors here who fixed me," he said. "These are such good people. They stick with you, and they will find out what's wrong. You can count on it."
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