Strong at Heart

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By Cindy Baldhoff

After being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, swimming legend Mark Spitz is educating others about the condition.

Mark Spitz became a household name after winning seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games. Iconic posters further cemented his popularity and, in 1999, he was the only swimmer to make ESPN’s SportsCentury 50 Greatest Athletes list. Although he retired from competition at the age of 22, he has continued living an active, healthy life.

That vibrant picture of health he portrayed made it all the more shocking when, in September 2019, he announced via Twitter that he had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation.

“Today marks the anniversary of my 7th Gold Medal win at the 1972 Olympic Games,” he Tweeted. “After competing at that level, I never imagined that I would be diagnosed with a heart condition like this one.”

After receiving his own diagnosis, Spitz is working to spread awareness about AFib and also has become the spokesman for AliveCor, which makes the KardiaMobile personal ECG device. (See sidebar.) Spitz talked with Heartbeat about his diagnosis, what he’s learned from it and what he wants others to know.

Heartbeat: What symptoms led you to discover you had AFib?

Mark Spitz: The first time I ever felt symptoms, I was walking out to my garage and began to feel faint. I didn’t do anything that would cause me to feel physically exhausted or out of breath, but my body felt worn out. My wife and I initially thought I was dehydrated, but nothing calmed the feeling, so I knew something was wrong.

Heartbeat: How quickly were you diagnosed, and what was that process like?

Spitz: My wife called an ambulance, and the medics took my heart rate and blood pressure. Right off the bat, they thought I had AFib. I immediately went to UCLA, where they gave me IVs in both arms: one containing a blood thinner and one to help with the adrenaline surge. The doctor put me under and shocked my heart with paddles three times to get my heart back to sinus rhythm, but it didn’t work because my heart rate wasn’t low enough. It was 160 when it probably should have been at 120. Once they finally got my heart rate under control, I was released from the hospital.

The next day I went back in and was hooked up to a device that monitored my heart with three points of contact. Information about my heart was sent to an Android phone that then sent the details to a company in Texas. Ninety minutes later, this company called to inform me I was in AFib.

Heartbeat: As a former Olympic athlete, and someone who continues to take great care of your physical health and fitness, how shocking was it to get that diagnosis?

Spitz: I was shocked. Given my age and weight at the time I was diagnosed, I didn’t think I was at risk for heart disease. What was really shocking to find out from doctors was that there are studies proving elite athletes who endure arduous training are 38% more predisposed to getting AFib after the age of 50.

I’ve since learned that AFib is the most common type of heart arrhythmia and an estimated 2.1 to 6.7 million people in the U.S. have it. Since being diagnosed, my perception of my health has changed in a way that I never could have imagined when I was younger.

Heartbeat: From a mental and emotional standpoint, what changes did you make to come to terms with having AFib?

Spitz: After those initial few weeks of tests and doctor visits, I had to come to terms with the fact that this can happen to anyone, at any time. It had nothing to do with my lifestyle. I have always been mindful of my health, but a diagnosis like this is out of your control. So this was just a new daily challenge I had to accept and become educated on in order to feel comfortable again.

Heartbeat: What kind of lifestyle changes have you made to help manage it?

Spitz: I have always lived a healthy lifestyle, but the biggest adjustment has been putting myself on day-to-day routines. From my diet to my exercise to using my KardiaMobile device, I make sure to do things every day that I know will have the best short-term and long-term effect on my heart.

For example, I am much more conscious about what I’m eating. I have organic oatmeal every morning and make sure my diet consists of fresh fruit and vegetables. I don’t eat fried foods and am very aware of my carbohydrate intake. I also started to swim again, aiming to swim for 30 minutes every day as well as taking daily walks with my wife.

Heartbeat: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about AFib?

Spitz: I think the biggest misconception is that this doesn’t happen to healthy people when, in fact it can happen to anyone, even athletes. While there are a number of things that can cause AFib, like having a history with heart attacks or high blood pressure, I didn’t know this could happen to someone like me, someone who has always lived a healthy life.

Heartbeat: What do you wish you had known sooner about it?

Spitz: That this happens to millions of people each year. Any diagnosis is always a bit scary because of the unknown, but if your AFib is controlled properly, there is not much risk. You can get back to your normal life and exercise routine.

Heartbeat: What do you want more people to understand about it?

Spitz: I want people to know there are tools out there that can help to properly monitor their heart health. There are simple devices that let you live your life confidently without a constant cloud of fear or worry looming over you. I also want them to know that they can still be in control of their life and health; they just need to be more mindful of their body on a daily basis.

Heartbeat: Why was it important for you to speak up and be a spokesman for AliveCor?

Spitz: Having access to this type of knowledge about my heart at my fingertips is extremely important. I am now confident in how I feel at any given moment and for the rest of the day. Because a lot of people are unaware that they can even have this type of information at home and on their mobile devices, I think it’s crucial to continue to educate people and share my story, so other people know there are important tools like the KardiaMobile available to help people be proactive about their heart conditions.

Also, in the medical device space, a lot of trust from the consumer comes from knowing that these devices have been vetted and approved by the FDA. There’s a standard in the industry that a medical device manufacturer has to obtain, and AliveCor has been able to achieve this from a mobile standpoint.

Heartbeat: How does having access to that kind of technology help you?

Spitz: It’s in my nature to want to know what’s on the horizon, whether that be the next hour or the rest of the day. With that, I use this technology to stay ahead because I would rather know my heart rate before I go to the doctor, so I don’t have to worry or stress about negative results. I use this technology as a tool to stay positive.