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Clipped Wings Repaired - An Atrial Fibrillation (a-fib) Story

He came in for a heart procedure and he ended up sprouting wings.

In a way, that’s just what happened with Albert Dietz after he was cured of atrial fibrillation (a-fib) at the Oregon Heart & Vascular Institute at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

It all began in early 2004 when Dietz, who lives in Central Point near Medford, first experienced heart palpitations. These irregular rhythms of the heartbeat would sometimes last for hours. Dietz recalls an entire driving trip from Portland to Seattle in nonstop arrhythmia. This was quite unsettling while driving up Interstate 5, but even more so for someone who’s an avid recreational pilot.

“My first thought was, I’m going to have to sell my airplane,” Dietz recalled of the initial diagnosis, which came in response to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight physical. That diagnosis was atrial flutter, an irregular rhythm of the heart’s upper chambers. He underwent catheter ablation (a procedure that destroys nerve tissue to stop the flutter) in May 2005, but that was unsuccessful The medications that were later prescribed caused slowing of the heart rate to the extent that a pacemaker was implanted.

"There were so many diagnoses saying I had nothing to worry about and that one medication or another would take care of the problem," Dietz said. For the next two years, he saw other doctors and a lot of red… tape, that is. Mainly with the FAA and their requirements for test results, medication lists, and physician reports and letters. In the meantime, his pilot’s license was suspended, so he sold his airplane and gave up his favorite pastime.

"It was a very sinking feeling," Dietz said.

It was enough to send him on a quest to find a better treatment option, which led him to the doorstep of Dr. James McClelland, Medical Director of Heart Rhythm Services at Oregon Heart & Vascular Institute. There Dietz found what he was looking for.

“I got on the Internet and discovered there was a new method to halt a-fib, called minimaze,” Dietz said, “and that a Dr. McClelland in Eugene was doing it. I managed to get an appointment with him. He checked me out, and then told me that my history of high blood pressure and my age precluded my being a candidate for the procedure. I was disappointed, but I liked Dr. McClelland, primarily because he listened. And he didn't talk down to me. He talked as if I could understand what he was saying.”

Dietz tried one more medication therapy, but it was his persistence with Dr. McClelland that led to his final approach for a cure, the minimaze. It’s a minimally invasive procedure where the cardiac surgeon destroys a small amount of abnormal tissue in the heart that is thought to be the source of the a-fib. As a result, the destroyed tissue can no longer generate or conduct electrical impulses. The abnormal signal is disrupted, and the heart assumes its normal rhythm. At the Oregon Heart & Vascular Institute, the entire procedure is monitored by Dr. McClelland.

“I feel he's one in a million,” Dietz said. “Although he's a busy man, he listens, and I know this because the questions he asks are on point. He's even called me at home while he was on vacation. He and Dr. David Duke (the cardiac surgeon) were completely upfront about the minimaze procedure, and my only surprise was that it worked so well. I was very impressed.”

The FAA was impressed as well. This past January, 18 months after the heart surgery that fixed his a-fib, Dietz got his pilot’s license back.

“It’s a third class license that means I can fly single-engine planes over land,” Dietz said. “I went flying a couple of weeks ago with an instructor. It was at an unfamiliar airport (Ashland) and I'm pretty rusty, but we went through the paces and got it up and down a couple of times.

The new license means he’ll still be able to fly over the Shasta National Forest, one of his favorite flight plans, or visit family and friends, as long as there’s an airstrip nearby.

He was grounded by a challenging heart condition, but thanks to the amazing medicine he experienced at Sacred Heart, Albert Dietz is flying again.

Learn more about the heart rhythm services provided by our experts at Oregon Heart & Vascular Institute.