Anticipating National Stroke Awareness Month in May, heart health advocate and patient Mellanie True Hills speaks on her life-threatening bout with atrial fibrillation, a rapid or irregular heartbeat or a quivering of the upper chambers of the heart, to raise awareness in the public about this deadly lesser-known cousin of heart attacks.

The Mayo Clinic estimates that more than 5 million Americans are affected by atrial fibrillation today, and as the Baby Boomers continue to age those numbers are multiplying exponentially. It only makes sense that Mayo Clinic estimates account just for cases confirmed by electrocardiograms and many others go unreported.

Deceptive at times, atrial fibrillation symptoms of dizziness, nausea, and lightheadedness might be dismissed by a patient or attributed to other issues, yet they are some of the leading symptoms of heart attacks, especially for women. Other symptoms include skipped heartbeats, palpitations, and a racing heart and pressure to the chest. Hills’ atrial fibrillation, specifically, started with skipped heartbeats and a racing heart and resulted in having blood clots and a close call for stroke.

The effects of atrial fibrillation are dire, leading to 15 to 20 percent of strokes in the United States (105,000-140,000 per year). Hills, a former high-tech and high-stress executive and author of A Woman’s Guide to Saving Her Own Life: The Heart Program for Health and Longevity, was surprised to find out women account for 61 percent of U.S. stroke deaths, which not only kills, but is also the #1 cause of permanent disability. Women with atrial fibrillation are five times more likely to have a stroke, especially if they are also on hormones. This doesn’t exclude atrial fibrillation’s impact on men, particularly considering factors of heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, excessive fat intake, or sleep apnea.

Of course, many doctors know what atrial fibrillation is, says Hills but, in many cases, including her own, the impact on patients’ lives of treatment and fear of another episode is immensely underestimated. On her initial regimen of anticoagulant (Coumadin/warfarin) treatment Hills, like many others with afib, endured:

• weekly blood draws, at home or on the road
• constant adjustments of dosage to avoid too much thinning or thickening of blood, with risk of blood clots or bleeding to death
• having to eliminate yard work, use of any knives, and even shaving her legs to avoid accidental cuts that could cause major bleeding
• the embarrassment of excessive bruises on arms, legs and even the face from even the slightest touch, because of thin blood
• avoiding driving a car, flying on a plane, or traveling alone due to fear of another attack

When medical research indicated that one-fourth of anticoagulant patients never experience stability on the drugs due to genetics, Hills sought a solution to what was feeling like a nightmare that may never end. She learned that surgery could cure atrial fibrillation. As a proactive, solutions-oriented patient, her case is unique in that Hills bypassed initial treatment by catheter ablation and opted to go straight to Mini-Maze surgery, which she attributes to curing her of atrial fibrillation and eliminating her risk of stroke.

Thrilled with her surgical outcome, Hills has made it her mission to inform thousands of others about atrial fibrillation through the development of an informative website: (launch date 3/21/07) and her continued work as the founder and CEO of the American Foundation for Women's Health.

Author's Bio: 

Mellanie True Hills is the founder and CEO of the American Foundation for Women’s Health, a non-profit organization dedicated to education and awareness about women’s health issues. Hills’ mission is to spread awareness of heart disease. An expert on women's health, she frequently speaks for corporations, associations and at women's health events, motivating and inspiring people to greater productivity and health.