Bill McAllister had worked hard his whole life and wasn’t planning on slowing down in retirement.
He had grown his company, Colonial Mechanical Corporation, from two employees to 700. When he sold the company to FirstEnergy and retired, he planned to spend more time captaining his 59\’ custombuilt sport fishing boat. He and his wife, Rennie, liked to fish in marlin tournaments and take the boat on long-distance journeys through open ocean waters.
But Bill began experiencing cardiac episodes. While working out at the gym, for instance, his heart rate would suddenly shoot up from 125 to 185 beats per minute. He’d often wake up in the middle of the night with a fever and a strange sensation in his chest.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Alien’? I felt like there was something in my chest that wanted to get out,” he said.
Two months into his retirement, Bill learned that he had atrial fibrillation, an irregular rhythm in the upper chambers of the heart.
Within a month, Bill was exercising regularly. That May, Dr. Ellenbogen reported that Bill had a perfect EkG—without the help of Coumadin.
His cardiologist put him on a regimen of heart medications. Over the next few years, Bill’s dosages went up and left him feeling increasingly fatigued. The medications required blood tests every two weeks, putting a curb on extended traveling. His doctor ruled out surgery.
“He said I had to learn to live with a-fib and stay on Coumadin for the rest of my life,” he recalled.
He sought a second opinion from Dr. Kenneth Ellenbogen, Chair of Cardiology at the Pauley Heart Center, and a leading researcher in the treatment of a-fib. After carefully evaluating Bill’s condition, Dr. Ellenbogen recommended Maze surgery, a procedure in which a surgeon uses an energy source to make precise scars on the heart to block the irregular impulses that cause the arrhythmia and restore the heart to a normal rhythm.
“I loved it, because it was a positive fix,” said Bill. Although the open-heart surgery came with some risks, he said, “I was told there was an 85-90% chance that it would permanently fix the atrial fibrillation.”
Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan, Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Pauley, performed the surgery on Bill—without any complications—in March 2004.
After his release from the hospital, Bill went home, where his wife helped in his recuperation. A graduate of the MCV nursing program, Rennie had once served as the nursing coordinator of the hospital’s pediatric emergency room.
Within a month, Bill was exercising regularly. That May, Dr. Ellenbogen reported that Bill had a perfect EKG—without the help of Coumadin.
Since that time, Bill has resumed an active lifestyle that includes captaining his boat to Nantucket and Mexico and playing guitar in a bluegrass band with his college friends. In the eight years since his surgery, he has never experienced another episode of atrial fibrillation.
He is grateful to Drs. Ellenbogen and Kasirajan for turning his life around. Before the surgery, he sometimes couldn’t make it upstairs without sitting down.
“Now I take the steps two at a time,” he said.
Note: In June 2006, Dr. Kasirajan helped develop a modified “mini Maze” surgery that does not require open-heart surgery. In this innovative method, the surgeon accesses the heart through three small incisions on each side of the chest. The surgeon uses endoscopic cameras and instruments to perform the ablation. Because the chest does not have to be opened, recovery is much easier and the average hospital stay is around four days.