Heart ablation procedure gives a Belleville man new lease on life

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ST. LOUIS, MO (KTVI)-Three million Americans are affected by atrial fibrillation, the most common heart rhythm disorder. More common in older people, a Belleville, IL man was diagnosed at age 24. Washington University doctors were able to fix the problem and end years of worrying.

Greg Peppers, a fit 44-years old, exercises regularly to stay in shape. But he recalls that day 20 years ago, when his world and Navy career started to turn upside down.

“One day I was on a run, like I would do every day, just trying to stay in shape. Out of breath, I started getting tightness of chest, kind of light-headed and I didn’t know what was going on."

Greg was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, a disorder that increased his risk of stroke by 500 percent.

Dr. Phillip Cuculich, a Washington University cardiologist, says, “And that’s because the top chambers of the heart instead of beating and emptying as they should, they just quiver. And when blood quivers, it pools and it can form a clot. If that clot were to break loose, it oftentimes travels to the brain and has a stroke."

Greg was devastated.

Peppers says, “You start thinking about your life and what your quality of life. What are you going to be able to do with your kids/ How are you going to be able to spend time with your family? Would it end my naval career?"

It eventually did.

Greg was put on medication but if he forgot to take his pills, he struggled through the day. Two years ago, he hooked up with Dr. Cuculich to have a catheter ablation. The procedure has been around for several years, but has undergone improvements that have boosted the success rate. There’s about an 80-percent success rate now, especially when the disorder is caught early.

"We go in through the veins in the leg into the heart,” explains Dr. Cuculich. “And our goal is to steer these long skinny catheters around to try to find where the atrial fibrillation is coming from. What we’re able to do then is heat up the tip of that catheter and essentially zap the inside of the heart where the AFib originates."

In a 3D image, you can see the green tip of the catheter.

"Each of these red dots that you see here is a small ablation of 30-60 seconds where we heat up the tip of the catheter. And, in a way, it's like spot welding a line of scar around the heart.”

It isolates the atrial fibrillation and blocks it from entering the heart.  It worked for Greg and eased his worries about his family and health.

“To have that eliminated… that was a breath of fresh air for me,” said Peppers. “So I kind of feel like it gave me my life back."

Dr. Cuculich says about a third of patients have no symptoms. With AFib so routine, doctors' visits are important. He thinks Greg just had a pre-disposition for the disorder.

FOX 2 is your Home of the Rams and the Washington University Heart and Vascular Center will be involved with activities this Sunday, handing out rally towels to all the fans at the season-opener.