Charissa Worthmann: competitive gymnast despite arrhythmia diagnosis
Posted on 25 March 2018
Charissa Worthmann has become a competitive gymnast, despite living with arrhythmia – a congenital heart condition characterised by an irregular heart rate.
Two years ago as I sat in my cardiologist’s rooms, a deep fear washed over me. My eyes teared up as he pointed out areas of my heart on a chart, pointing out the differences between normal anatomy and my own complications.
I felt nauseous, scared and angry. A million thoughts raced through my mind. I eat healthily. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, I’ve never touched a drug. How will I explain this to my coach? Is my gymnastics career over? Why is this happening to me?
What is Arrhythmia
Arrhythmia means my heart rhythm is abnormal because of confused or damaged electrical pathways running across and through the muscle. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular and rapid heart rate that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications. The mitral valve in my heart is also slightly abnormal and can cause blood to leak to my left atrium, making me tired or dizzy, and this is known as Barlow’s Syndrome.
My mind reeled. Dr Braham Barnard tried to put me at ease by explaining it wasn’t my fault; that I was born with it and that he would do everything he possibly could to help me be where I wanted to be.
Over the next few days we discussed my options and formulated a game plan, which appealed to my goal-oriented, organised approach to most things. He prescribed medication to “re-set” my heartbeat, saying they would require regular adjustments, and explained that I may need to have surgery at some point.
That day was the beginning of my journey of the heart. It’s a process that has put many things in perspective for me. As clichéd as it sounds, I’m grateful for the little things I experience in life and I genuinely no longer sweat the small stuff.
First signs of trouble
Two years ago, while competing in a local gymnastics competition, I felt a distinct fluttering in my chest and pins and needles in my hands and fingers. I assumed it was nerves, but the feeling didn’t go away afterwards, which made me worried. As a competitive athlete, I wanted to push through and continued training for the next few weeks.
I didn’t want to be seen as the weak link in the provincial team. But the symptoms got worse.
Initially, I thought my nutrition wasn’t up to scratch, or that I had been training too hard, so I took some vitamins and increased my intake of electrolytes. After all, sweating out excessive amounts of salt can make you feel dizzy. But although I felt a bit better, I still felt different.
It was during a visit to my parents in Margate, KwaZulu-Natal, that I decided the risks of my worrying symptoms outweighed the benefits of training. I’d been for a run and the fluttering feeling had returned. A local GP ran an ECG and picked up an abnormality and when I returned to Bloemfontein, I contacted Dr Barnard, who admitted me to Mediclinic Bloemfontein for further tests. After a series of ECGs, function tests, blood tests and ultrasounds, he gave me my diagnosis.
After the diagnosis
I’m a perfectionist. I have always set high standards, in my sport and studies, and am very hard on myself if I don’t achieve them. So the months following my diagnosis were really rough. At first the medication worked, then the symptoms presented themselves again and Dr Barnard adjusted the dose.
This went on for some time. Combinations of Warfarin, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers and many more took a toll on my sporting career. My performance deteriorated; I could barely complete a single routine and I felt the hopelessness creep in.
Eventually, Dr Barnard decided I was a good candidate for ablation surgery. This minimally invasive procedure uses electrical mapping to identify the abnormal pathways and tissues of the heart, which are then burnt away by a laser. Dr Razeen Gopal, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Mediclinic Panorama, performed this successful procedure.
Afterwards, I no longer had atrial fibrillation and my other symptoms drastically decreased. I still struggled with tachycardias, as my heart rate exceeded the normal resting heart rate. Dr Barnard saw me almost every week and after balancing my medication, my performance drastically improved.
I was training again and suddenly I had energy. It no longer took me half an hour to feel awake in the mornings and I could get through my routines without fainting or getting pins and needles. The happiness, excitement and relief I felt was overwhelming.
The way forward
It has been two years since my diagnosis and because I am still prone to developing rhythm abnormalities, I focus on finding and maintaining balance in my lifestyle. The key lies in listening to my body and respecting my heart. If I feel fatigued, I won’t push my training. If I feel extra beats, I avoid caffeine or any stimulants.
Unfortunately, there are some things I can’t control. For example, when it rains or is very hot or humid I get fatigued, or when I am under an extremely high level of stress, I’ll feel my heart’s extra beats.
At the beginning of this journey, I wrote a list of realistic goals I wanted to achieve and discussed them with Dr Barnard. I started small – to remember to take my medication on time – and aimed high: to compete and win a gymnastics competition again. Working towards these goals has helped me focus on the process, and keeps me motivated.
Could you have Arrhythmia?
Almost everyone has felt a “fluttering” in their chest or thought that their heart was skipping a beat. Don’t panic if you’ve occasionally had these symptoms. Arrhythmias are extremely common, especially as you get older. Most cases are harmless, but some can be dangerous and require treatment and management.
A single premature beat may be felt as a “palpitation” or “skipped beat”. Premature beats that occur often or in rapid succession may cause a greater awareness of heart palpitations or a “fluttering” sensation in the chest or neck.
When arrhythmias last long enough to affect how well the heart works, more serious symptoms may develop. See your doctor if you have felt any of these symptoms to rule out other problems, such as heart disease, and to give you peace of mind:
- Fainting (syncope)
or near-fainting spells
- Rapid heartbeat or pounding
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
How does ablation surgery work?
If you suffer from arrhythmia and have had little success with other treatment options, your doctor may recommend cardiac ablation surgery.
During the cardiac ablation procedure, a surgeon will thread a catheter through a vein or artery into your heart to direct heat, cold or laser energy to scar or destroy the tissue in your heart that is causing your abnormal heart rhythm. The surgery can prevent abnormal electrical signals from entering your heart and put an end to the symptoms of arrhythmia.