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From Atrial Fibrillation to Fitness Enthusiast: A Transformed Heart

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Newswise – LOS ANGELES (September 26, 2022) – Claudia Huerta, 43, knows a thing or two about transformations. After being diagnosed with a serious, albeit common, heart condition called atrial fibrillation (AFib), the payroll executive and Maywood, Calif. resident transformed from overweight and overworked into a winner of a lean and heart healthy bodybuilding contest that is now drug free.

In September, Atrial Fibrillation Awareness Month, Huerta and her cardiology team at the Smidt Heart Institute in Cedars-Sinai urge people to learn more about atrial fibrillation, the most common type of abnormal heart rhythm that can lead to stroke and heart failure.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an enormous amount of stress, both physical and mental, and I’ve started eating and drinking alcohol more often than before,” Huerta said. “During this very stressful time, my existing heart palpitations increased and I was tired all the time. But I assumed that these symptoms were the result of my unhealthy lifestyle choices and increased stress.

The heart palpitations increased steadily and eventually caused such severe shortness of breath and overwhelming fatigue that Huerta’s primary care physician sent her to see cardiologist Raj Khandwalla, MD, director of Digital Therapeutics at the Smidt Heart Institute.

After blood tests, a cardiac stress test and an echocardiogram to check the structure and function of her heart, Khandwalla diagnosed Huerta with atrial fibrillation, despite being two decades younger than the average patient.

“Although atrial fibrillation is a very common condition, it is rare for a patient in their 40s to develop it,” Khandwalla said. “Through Claudia’s diagnostic and treatment journey, we learned that she had a family history of the disease, which explained her early onset of the disease.”

With a clear diagnosis, Huerta’s transformation accelerated. She had recently started a new exercise program at a neighborhood fitness studio, but became even more committed to the program, participating in it several times a week. She also started cooking meals and considered entering a bodybuilding competition.

“Through exercise and healthy eating, my body began to change, and so did my outlook,” Huerta said. “I found new ways to push my body and saw how my body started to respond and transform. It was amazing.”

Despite this progress, Huerta still suffered from shortness of breath and fatigue and was still at risk of having a stroke.

That left Huerta with two choices: take blood thinners every day to reduce that risk or have atrial fibrillation ablation.

Hesitant to take medication, Huerta met cardiac electrophysiologist Ashkan Ehdaie, MD, associate professor of cardiology and associate director of the Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology Fellowship Training Program at Cedars-Sinai.

Known as “electricians of the heart,” electrophysiologists like Ehdaie perform catheter ablation procedures to restore the heart’s normal rhythm. During a catheter ablation procedure, electrophysiologists use either radiofrequency energy or a freezing balloon to destroy areas of heart tissue that may be causing atrial fibrillation.

“With an ablation procedure, there’s no cut in the body — it’s all minimally invasive,” Ehdaie said. “Patients can usually go home the same day and possibly stop their atrial fibrillation medications. However, a healthy lifestyle is also important to prevent long-term disease.

After meeting Ehdaie and learning more about the ablation procedure, Huerta knew this was the path she wanted to take.

“Alcohol wasn’t worth it to me anymore, nor was eating bad,” Huerta said. “I had the opportunity to continue my incredible body transformation and undergo a unique procedure that would allow me to be drug-free. The decision was easy.

Just a month after the procedure, Huerta was back at work and in the gym, but with a new goal in mind: to compete in his first-ever bodybuilding and bodybuilding competition.

“I was committed to competing with no supplements or muscle enhancers, just hard work and dedication,” Huerta said.

Huerta came away with first and second place.

“I cried on stage, I couldn’t believe I won my division,” Huerta said. “It was the most amazing moment. Everything I had worked so hard for came full circle.

For Khandwalla and Ehdaie, Huerta’s transformation was an inspiration to watch firsthand.

“Claudia is the very definition of motivation. She has real courage,” Ehdaie said. “Her eyes were set on transforming her life and competing as a fitness model, and she nailed it all. My job was the easy part; his end of the bargain was much, much tougher.

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai blog: Atrial fibrillation: Know the warning signs