Real stories of people who got their heart's rhythm back in order

Nearly 3 million Americans experience the frustration of living with Atrial Fibrillation. The following are true stories of successful treatments for heart rhythm disorder performed at St. Vincent's.


The Stories

Lillian Butler-Humphrey and Gerald Burns

Lillian Butler-Humphrey and Gerald Burns both experienced the frustration of living with Atrial Fibrillation. They have also both experienced successful treatment for their heart rhythm disorder at St. Vincent’s. Click on the image above to watch the video.

Lillian’s Story

Lillian Butler-Humphrey is a 60-year-old active woman who says Atrial Fibrillaton caused her to be extremely tired much of the time. For a woman who loves to be constantly on the go, AFib was life altering. She was often short of breath and experienced what she describes as “the flutters.”

“It’s hard to describe exactly how my heart felt when I had AFib,” says Butler-Humphrey. “You just knew you weren’t supposed to feel this way. It’s like your heart races when you run and calms down when you stop running. When you have AFib, your heart keeps racing even after you stop and sit down. It’s scary.”

Butler-Humphrey says she was once an avid walker before Atrial Fibrillation took away her energy. Now, she says she is able to return to distance walking. She is also considering joining a gym and is enjoying thinking about all of the things she can do now. “I love my life,” Butler-Humphrey says. “And I am going to live it.”

Gerald’s Story

Gerald Burns is a 61-year-old man whose passions are spending time with his wife and riding his bicycle. In a good year, Burns would ride 10,000 miles. Some of the medication he took for Atrial Fibrillation made that impossible.

“Some of the medicine would make me just sit on the couch and stare,” Burns remembers. “Later, my doctors found a medicine that was not so bad, but I still never felt like myself “good enough to do all the things I love to do.”

“I am back on my bike, back to work, and I feel great,” Burns says. While he won’t be able to complete 10,000 miles this year on his bicycle, Burns plans to go as far as he can.


Both Lillian and Gerald found answers to their heart rhythm disorder at St. Vincent’s, where they had catheter ablation procedures. Nearly six months after those procedures, neither had experienced Atrial Fibrillation and hoped they would soon be able to stop taking medication altogether.

James Skellion

James Skellion has always been proud of his health and fitness. He’s a lean and active 60-year-old who eats a careful diet and has run dozens of marathons. So when his doctor told him he had Atrial Fibrillation he was extremely surprised, not to mention confused.

“I couldn’t believe there was anything wrong with my heart,” Skellion says. “Frankly, I’d never even heard of Atrial Fibrillation. I was totally and completely shocked.” Some people with AFib experience symptoms such as exhaustion, shortness of breath, sweating and fainting. But others are like James Skellion and have no symptoms at all. Luckily, Skellion’s condition was caught by an EKG during his annual physical.

“James is like thousands who have no idea they have this condition that could cost them their lives,” says Dr. Mark Mostovych, who performs cardiovascular surgery at St. Vincent’s. “About one fifth of this nation’s strokes arise out of Atrial Fibrillation. Having the condition exist untreated is dangerous. Once it is diagnosed, it can also be difficult to treat.

There are many options when treating AFib, but for patients like Skellion, medication is not one of them. “For some people, Atrial Fibrillation is very manageable with medications or a minimally invasive procedure, and that’s great for them,” Dr. Mostovych says. “For patients who aren’t helped by those choices, the only option used to be major surgery. Now, there’s something brand new that is changing everything.”

In dramatic contrast the newer surgery Dr. Mostovych suggests, often referred to as the simplified Maze, is performed through a small incision with the patient’s heart continuing to beat and no need for the heart-lung machine. Instead of using a scalpel to make the new paths for electrical current in the heart, Dr. Mostovych uses heat delivered by high intensity focused ultrasound in a device designed by St. Jude Medical and recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

“I understood this was brand new, but I wasn’t worried or nervous,” says James Skellion. “I wanted to get past this condition so I would not be at risk of a stroke, and I wanted to recover as quickly as possible.” Patients who have the traditional Maze procedure face seven to nine days in the hospital.

James Skellion was able to leave St. Vincent’s three days after the simplified Maze. “I went home on a Thursday and I haven’t taken pain medication since the day after I was released from the hospital,” says Skellion. “Every year I do the Relay for Life. I look forward to lacing up my running shoes and just getting back to being me.”

Mary Ann Knabb

Diagnosed with Atrial Fibrillation, Mary Ann underwent successful treatment at St. Vincent’s, allowing her to return to her passion for helping children.


Tiffany Kirkham AFIB patientTiffany Kirkham

With three generations of women in her family who have battled breast cancer, Tiffany Kirkham has seen the effects of radiation firsthand. Kirkham was prepared to undergo whatever treatment necessary if she was similarly diagnosed, but she never thought she’d encounter radiation on a different front — in a battle against heart disease.

Kirkham, a 34-year-old active mother of four, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm. She was referred to Drs. Saumil Oza and Anthony Magnano, cardiac electrophysiologists at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside with Diagnostic Cardiology Associates.

When medicine failed to correct Kirkham’s AFib, the doctors recommended catheter ablation, a procedure that isolates and cauterizes the portion of the heart that is causing the arrhythmia. St. Vincent’s is one of only eight hospitals nationally that serve as active educational centers to teach experienced physicians to use 3D ultrasound mapping techniques that gradually reduce radiation levels during procedures.

“We always have to be careful of the radiation levels we expose our patients to before, during and after surgery whether they’ve been exposed to high levels of radiation prior to the procedure or not,” Dr. Oza said. “The techniques we’re using not only decrease radiation, but also increase the quality of care during the procedure because we’re working with a 3D image of the heart instead of the traditional 2D image.”

Dr. Oza said that five years ago, the catheter ablation techniques he utilized could include up to two CT scans and 60 minutes of fluoroscopy to position catheters, techniques that are commonplace in ablation procedures. After adding up the sum radiation level of this approach, Dr. Oza and his team recognized that it could equate to a roughly .01 percent increase in lifetime risk of cancer. In other words, one in 1,000 patients may get cancer someday because of the radiation emitted during that specific procedure. Dr. Oza and his team conduct nearly 400 catheter ablations per year, which equates to one person facing the plight of cancer every two and a half years.

With the help of cutting-edge technology, Dr. Oza and his team found a way to save that one life by utilizing the CARTO 3 System. They can eliminate the CT scan and decrease the time of fluoroscopy dramatically, with the majority of procedures in the range of just two to six minutes. The CARTO 3 System is the next generation 3D mapping system, allowing physicians to see the catheter ablation procedure from inside the patient and providing doctors the ability to complete the procedure with more anatomical detail.

Kirkham says the low levels of radiation emitted during her catheter ablation procedure added a level of comfort when going through the process.

Afib patient Luther TilghmanLuther Tilghman

Avid cyclist Luther Tilghman never thought he would join the estimated 2.6 million Americans who suffer from Atrial fibrillation (AFib), the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm and a leading cause of U.S. strokes. But when his debilitating fatigue led him to an Afib diagnosis, he turned to St. Vincent’s for a cutting-edge ablation procedure that put him safely back in the driver’s seat.

After working most of his life as a professional fisherman, the retired 64-year-old maintained a heart-healthy lifestyle and logged nearly 100 miles per week on his bicycle. Tilghman noticed his heart rate spiking dramatically from time to time on his heart monitor. He never felt the usual heart flutter commonly associated with Afib, but when he began suffering from extreme fatigue, he visited his primary physician and was diagnosed with Afib.

Tilghman then put his heart in the hands of Dr. Saumil Oza, a cardiac electrophysiologist at St. Vincent’s Medical Center Riverside with Diagnostic Cardiology Associates. He said Dr. Oza brought various treatment options to the table, but they ultimately decided that an innovative procedure called catheter ablation was the best route. This procedure necessitates threading a catheter through a vein in the leg up into the heart to cauterize and scar the abnormal tissue that causes AFib.

“When reviewing the treatment options with Tilghman, he understandably felt uncomfortable treating his AFib through medication alone,” Dr. Oza said. “The catheter ablation procedure was the perfect fit for him. In the appropriate patient, this procedure has up to an 80 percent success rate, providing a more permanent solution for patients and helping them avoid the side effects of a long-term medication regiment.”

Oza performed Tilghman’s catheter ablation in June 2012 utilizing techniques that increase the reliability of the procedure while reducing surgical radiation. St. Vincent’s and Yale University are the only two sites on the East Coast certified to teach experienced physicians how to use these techniques.

I cannot thank him enough for getting me back on the road and back to my life.

“We developed our techniques alongside a technological movement that has transformed how we perform catheter ablations,” Dr. Oza said. “The CARTO 3 System allows us to work with a 3D image of the heart whereas we used to perform the procedure with a limited 2D image of the heart. The benefit is that we can now see the procedure from inside the patient, providing us the ability to complete the procedure more reliably and with less radiation.”

Tilghman recently saw Dr. Oza for his one-year postoperative visit — a major milestone for those who undergo catheter ablation. He said he no longer suffers from Afib and is back to his active lifestyle.

“Through the entire process, Dr. Oza took the time to make me feel comfortable, explain the procedure in detail and answer every one of my questions,” Tilghman said. “I cannot thank him enough for getting me back on the road and back to my life.”

Afib patient Donald FletcherDonald Fletcher

My name is Donald Fletcher and I had Atrial Fibrillation (AFib). I’ve gone from 8 medications to one, an Aspirin! My actual problem is Sleep Apnea, but I didn’t find that out for a long time. From what I understand they are just now starting to link High Blood Pressure, Diabetes, and AFib, to Sleep Apnea. I would snore and my wife would say, “I can’t hold my breath for as long as you stop breathing”. Initially, the Sleep Apnea caused me to gain weight. Because I didn’t get enough sleep, my oxygen level decreased, and this started destroying my organs (Diabetes), eventually effecting my heart (AFib).

As a result of the AFib, I went to see Dr. Oza at St.Vincents Medical Center. He prescribed several medications to try to get my heart beat regulated. Then he tried to shock my heart back in rhythm, neither treatment worked. Next he did a Catheter Ablation procedure. He scheduled the Ablation for December of 2010. Ten days after the Ablation, my heart skipped out of beat again, and had to be shocked into rhythm one last time in January 2011. After this my heart finally started to sort out. At my three-month checkup he said everything looked fine.

Before the Ablation procedure, I felt like God was dealing with me to lose weight. I lost between 40 and 50 pounds. As my weight was coming down, the insulin and all the other meds started dropping off. I was able to quit everything except my heart meds. Three months after the Ablation procedure, Dr. Oza took me off all my meds. I was jumping for joy when all my meds were gone. I kept the aspirin (81mg) and that’s it! It’s been over a year now. Thank you Lord!

I have my heart back but it took a while. It took several months after we got it beating right. There was a healing process, you don’t just bounce back. I also had anxiety attacks for the first month. I talked to other heart patients with stents and bypasses, they said it was normal. What a relief to find this out.

I would have never made it without “Sweetie pie”, Barbara, my wife. We have 5 grown children, (3 girls and 2 boys) and 14 grandchildren. My immediate family and my church family gave me much support.

I feel so much better now it’s unbelievable. If you have Sleep Apnea, don’t fool around. It can kill you. You’re not just snoring. Sleep Apnea can create an avalanche of problems that may finally effect your heart.

Afib is bad. Between the Catheter Ablation, my sleep machine (CPAP), and essential lifestyle changes, I have my life back. I used to get exhausted just walking 50 feet. Now, we’ve just recently returned from hiking the Grand Canyon. All the way to the river and back! I could never have done that before.

Afib patient Richard McCoyRichard McCoy

My name is Richard McCoy. I’m 66 years old. My wife, Virginia, and I have three children, and three grandchildren, 3 years old, 11 months old and 10 months. We all live in Jacksonville.

Back in June of 1999, I had seven bypasses and I was fine leading up to last year. I started to slow down. That was the worst part of it, getting tired sooner. Plus, I could feel it. When I was quiet, lying down at night, I could tell it wasn’t normal. My heart was beating really fast at times. It got worse as time went on. I do maintenance work at the Crown Plaza Hotel by the airport — plumbing, heating, A/C, electric — but 75% is paperwork. I’ve been a supervisor there for almost 20 years now.  But I was sitting down doing paperwork instead of working. And I also missed not being able to play with grandchildren.

They diagnosed me with AFib last year. My family doctor saw it on the EKG. I went to St. Vincent’s because I had a level of comfort with them. They did my bypasses and thyroid surgeries. It was a natural choice.

I started with a medicine, but it didn’t work. Another doctor tried a procedure where they shocked my heart to stop the AFib. That didn’t last but two weeks. Then I saw Dr. Oza. I wanted to get something done about this. He recommended an ablation procedure.

I trust his judgment. You don’t feel or know anything during the procedure. I trusted St Vincent’s. And it’s not like I was Dr. Oza’s first patient. I had no qualms about it and I wanted this to get done. He’s a patient doctor. He explains everything. He listens. I like him a lot.

I was the first patient to undergo this procedure with a new eco catheter. Dr Oza said it was a new catheter being used that was eco-friendly and it’s much better to use because of the construction. The new catheter is reusable. The old catheters had to be thrown away after each use. That was important for me because I like a new tool. And we do try to recycle at home, especially plastics. And the three-year-old helps with some of that. She knows where to put the recyclables.

I really feel much better. My energy level has come back up. I can tell a huge difference.

My wife and I both like to work in the yard. We have an acre and a half. But that takes physical energy. My wife is excited. We’ve got some projects planned that I wouldn’t be able to do without this procedure – put a roof on the house, front porch, finish my back porch deck off. And I’m back in a normal routine at work.

If someone is considering the procedure, do it now. Some guys from work have been asking. They keep waiting to see how I respond. I’m doing great.

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