Wearing a royal blue USTA jacket, John Britton looks right at home sitting near the indoor tennis courts at the ACAC fitness center in Richmond. Britton, a tall, slim man of 65, is a lifelong athlete—a state champion track star in high school who started playing tennis in adult recreational leagues in the 1970s.
Today, he competes at the national level in USTA Super Senior tournaments and works out vigorously several days a week. But for many years, he fought an on-and-off-again battle with atrial fibrillation. His cardiac troubles first began in 1999, with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy (HOCM), a genetic condition that involves a thickening of the left ventricle. While running at lunchtime with his coworkers, he said, “My feet wouldn’t have circulation at the end of a three-mile run.”
The HOCM responded well to medication. Then, in 2002, after helping his team win the USTA Senior Mid-Atlantic Sectionals, he experienced a new problem—atrial fibrillation. “I felt a fluttering in my chest and had a complete lack of stamina,” he said. While playing tennis, “I could only hit four or five balls and then I’d have to catch my breath. I couldn’t run after lobs.”
From 2002 to 2008, he had to stop playing USTA league tennis when he could no longer perform at a competitive level. He returned to the sport following two cardiac ablations, undertaken by Dr. Kenneth Ellenbogen in 2009 and 2012, and an open-heart Maze surgery.
“He was a very motivated patient,” recalled Dr. Vigneshwar Kasirajan, Interim Chair of the Department of Surgery and Chair of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery at VCU Pauley Heart Center, who performed the surgery. “He wanted to feel better and get back to doing the things he used to do.”
Britton eventually felt strong enough to begin playing tennis again and rejoined his old team. He went on to compete in the 2011 Senior Nationals in Palm Springs, California. In 2012, he retired as Research Director of the Department of Corrections, where he had worked for 41 years. That year, following a second ablation, he snapped his Achilles tendon. He came back from all of it, though, and competed in the USTA Mid-Atlantic Sectionals and Senior Nationals in 2013.
“John’s story is proof that atrial fibrillation can happen to anyone—even outstanding athletes,” said Dr. Kenneth Ellenbogen, Chair of Cardiology. Fortunately, with today’s advanced treatments, “We have been able to change his life for the better.”
Britton is pleased with the care he has received over the years at Pauley. “I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Ellenbogen and Dr. Kasirajan and their staff. My afib is well under control and I’m able to run around the tennis courts and play like I did years ago.”