Longtime Salem resident Joanne Cunningham’s heart has always been filled with happiness. Surrounded by her large, extended family, the cheery great-grandmother enjoys nothing more than spending time with the people she loves.
But this life full of love was unexpectedly interrupted when Cunningham’s heart began to race uncontrollably, causing her to experience dizzy spells, shortness of breath and a great deal of discomfort. “I suddenly went from living life freely to being anxious and worried,” says Cunningham. “And living life like that was not for me.”
When her symptoms intensified, Cunningham consulted Maury McGough, M.D., her primary care physician and NSMC Director of Primary Care, who diagnosed her with atrial fibrillation. Also referred to as A-fib, atrial fibrillation is a condition that causes an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can lead to poor blood flow throughout the body. “It’s this poor blood flow that causes people to feel dizzy and weak,” says Dr. McGough. “It can also cause heart palpitations, fainting, chest pain and an increased risk for congestive heart failure and stroke.”
To monitor Cunningham’s A-fib, Dr. McGough referred her to NSMC cardiologist Michael Katcher, M.D. “I first tried to treat Joanne’s condition with medication, but she didn’t respond as well as I had hoped and continued to experience frequent and severe episodes of atrial fibrillation,” says Dr. Katcher .Both he and Cunningham knew that the next step would be surgery at the NSMC Heart Center.
“We determined that a leaky heart valve was causing increased pressure in Joanne’s heart chambers, contributing to her fast and irregular heart rate and causing shortness of breath," explains Ann Toran, M.D., NSMC Chief of Cardiac Surgery, who, in addition to repairing the valve, also performed a procedure to control the electrical impulses in Cunningham’s heart. “Together, these procedures stopped Joanne’s atrial fibrillation, stopped the valve from leaking and gave her a new lease on life.”
Throughout her surgery and recovery, Cunningham’s family was there to support her, thanks to the close proximity of NSMC’s Heart Center—the North Shore’s only comprehensive cardiac program that includes angioplasty and advanced cardiac surgery.
“I received the best care from the best people—and all in my own community,” says Cunningham. “For me, atrial fibrillation was just a bump in the road. Now that I am recovered, my heart is full of nothing but love."