Jake Peterson - Extinguishing AFib: A Firefighter's Story

Fire Captain Jake Peterson, of San Rafael, was just twenty-nine years old the first time his heart went into atrial fibrillation. He was at a Giant’s game with a paramedic friend when he felt a fluttering in his chest. As Jake describes it, “It felt weird. I felt off. I felt like something wasn’t right.” His friend thought it was most likely nothing, but they headed for the medical tent – just in case. The physician working the tent put Jake on a heart monitor. Looking up at the doctor, the medical technician, and his friend, Jake immediately knew something was wrong.  “Their eyes got wide,” he remembers, “and their mouths dropped.” Jake was transported to St. Francis Hospital. When medication failed to put his heart back into normal rhythm, Jake was electrically cardioverted.

The very next day, Jake went to see Dr. Robert Sperling, an interventional cardiologist at Marin General Hospital. Dr. Sperling calmed Jake’s fears, explaining that AFib was quite common and occasionally occurred in younger people. While Jake’s own grandfather had developed AFib at eighty, Dr. Sperling had seen patients as young as 13. Barring any further episodes, Dr. Sperling suggested Jake come in for tests once a year. He also stressed the importance of a healthy lifestyle. As Jake puts it “It was really good that I got it at that age because I changed my habits. I learned to exercise better, eat better, take better care of my body and drink more water.”

Jake’s self-imposed lifestyle modifications can be effective for many people with AFib. In fact, Marin General Hospital’s Center for Integrative Health & Wellness recently introduced the groundbreaking “Get Into Rhythm” lifestyle modification program for AFib patients. The lifestyle changes and regular monitoring served Jake well. He fought fires all over Marin County and was on the frontlines at the historic 2013 Rim Fire in Yosemite. Then, in October of 2014, Jake had an episode on his way to work.

He immediately went to the Marin General Hospital Emergency Department. Again, the drugs did not work for him, and he had to be cardioverted electrically. Jake’s doctors were not too alarmed, since it had been ten years since his last episode. But Jake had another bout of AFib just one month later. The medication worked, but Jake was getting concerned. As he puts it, “It’s uncomfortable, it’s weird. It’s your heart. You’re nervous all the time that you’re going to get it again, if you work three days in a row, if you work out too hard or don’t get enough water. The fear of going back into it was always on my mind.” Moreover, while Jake was anxious to get back to work, the Fire Department doctor would not clear him to return. He was finally allowed back on the job in mid December. Two days later, he went into AFib again.

Jake was put on a beta-blocker but he experienced yet another episode in April of 2015. This time, Dr. Sperling referred him to see a cardiologist specializing in Cardiac Electrophysiology, Marin General Hospital’s Dr. Sujoya Dey. She recommended a minimally invasive intervention known as transcatheter cardiac ablation. This procedure destroys the tiny area of heart muscle that triggers the arrhythmia. A catheter with an electrode at its tip is guided up to the heart through an artery in the groin. Once the exact location of the dysfunctional area has been identified, the electrode destroys it.

Jake was less than enthusiastic about the ablation procedure and decided to put it off. Then, in June of 2015, he had another episode and cardioverted at home using medication he had been given for emergency purposes. “After that, I said OK, enough is enough,” Jake recalls. “ Dr. Dey, you’re up.”

In July of 2015, Jake went in to Marin General Hospital for cardiac ablation. The procedure took five hours and he was released from the hospital the following day. Because the procedure requires that a patient be on blood thinners for three months after surgery, Jake was not able to return to work right away. He was finally given the all clear to return to the fire station in October of 2015 and has worked a normal schedule ever since. On his days off, Jake is back to an active lifestyle of surfing, golfing, soccer, and playing softball with his teammates at San Rafael’s Albert’s Field.

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