By ALYSE THOMPSON
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Chuck O'Donnell often drives the 17 miles to Mendon without stopping.
He pulls weeds from his flower beds, and he fills in for his wife, Allie, at her Maine Street antique shop a few days a week.
They are routine activities for the 74-year-old Mendon resident, but until a few months ago, O'Donnell couldn't do them without being overcome by debilitating fatigue resulting from an abnormal heart rhythm.
Now, as one of a handful of patients to undergo a new procedure offered at Blessing Hospital, he has performed everyday functions virtually without problem ever since.
"I was tired of being tired," O'Donnell said. "I've been able to go out and do yardwork and all kinds of things. With this (condition), I had to do it in bits and pieces, because it wasn't something I could do without stopping."
O'Donnell was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, early onset dementia and other complications in its patients. The condition, also known as AFib, occurs when the top two chambers of the heart beat out of rhythm. It affects 2.7 million Americans, according to the American Heart Association, and it is the most common abnormal heart rhythm in people over the age of 65.
Dr. John Hammock, a cardiologist at Blessing, said AFib has a wide reach in the Quincy area. He said increasing obesity in the Midwest brings greater frequency of diabetes, high blood pressure and other heart issues.
"It's huge," he said. "There isn't a week that goes by that I don't see a new patient with atrial fibrillation," Hammock said.
Symptoms of AFib can include general fatigue, rapid or irregular heartbeat, dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness and confusion -- some of these O'Donnell began to experience about three years ago. Before being diagnosed, however, O'Donnell suffered a stroke and four or five heart attacks -- his last occurring six months to a year ago. He attributes much of his history of heart problems to AFib.
"It's kind of like a car that's got a couple of bad spark plugs in it -- it just affects the whole driving mechanism," he said. "I guess that's what it does with the heart, too."
Hammock said these concerns made O'Donnell a "great candidate" for an AFib ablation, a procedure developed in the last two decades. It includes sending catheters to the heart through a vein in the groin, then two small holes are burned in the areas of the heart causing the AFib. The whole process takes between four and seven hours.
Hammock added the procedure doesn't cure AFib, but it improves the well-being of those who undergo it by reducing shortness of breath and palpitations. O'Donnell seems to fit that description.
"Once I got the ablation done, I was great to go, and I've gone ever since," he said.
After training through a 12-month fellowship at the University of Oklahoma Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Hammock started performing ablations about three months ago in Blessing's new electrophysiology lab. Hammock said the lab "is as sophisticated as any in the country" -- a rarity for communities of Quincy's size.
"There aren't too many places across the country where you have a town of 40,000 that's offering open heart services and full-line electrophysiology services," he said.
Hammock, for example, mentioned that he uses a special pressure sensor catheter that allows him to tell how much pressure he is putting on heart tissues.
"That's a huge benefit to patients as far as safety is concerned," he said.
Though right now he is being selective with ablation patients, Hammock encouraged those who think they might benefit from the procedure to reach out to him, their primary doctors or their cardiologists.
O'Donnell agreed, adding he's just happy he doesn't have to pull his pickup to the roadside for quick rests between Quincy and Mendon.
"Now I've stayed in rhythm for several months," he said. "(I'm) feeling great, doing good."