Fallbrook Man No Longer Fears the Tiger


Fallbrook resident Richard McDonnell likes to tell the story of how we all live in a jungle (an analogy for life) and one day the tiger (death) is going to get you. While the analogy may be overly dramatic for most, it aptly described how McDonnell felt for more than 40 years.

McDonnell started having what he called hummingbird heart (rapid heartbeats) episodes beginning in his teenage years. It became more frequent and longer in duration in his 30s. He consulted a cardiologist who recommended a new type of surgery at the time (in the 1970s) to correct it. He did some research and decided instead to take drugs and purchase life insurance. He was married and raising a step-daughter and didn’t want to risk surgery.

As the years passed, the rapid heartbeat episodes got worse.

“I could get clammy and it would be exhausting; it would be like running a marathon,” McDonnell said. “Having your heart do that in your 30s or 40s is, eh, but as you get into your 50s, 60s, and 70s, it’s much more dramatic.”

His step-daughter, Meredith Paige, is employed in the medical field and works around patients in high-risk situations all the time. However, she says when it’s your own parent, it’s a different deal.

“To be the daughter of the patient who is totally freaked out is horrifying,” Paige said.

McDonnell’s life was negatively impacted by not just the several times a week he’d experience rapid heart rate, but the worrying about it all the time.

“I became really preoccupied with my heart all the time, always thinking about my heart,” McDonnell said.

He carried heart rate monitors with him everywhere he went.

“Towards the end a couple of times, I would drive to town, realize I didn’t have my cuffs (heart rate monitoring device) turned my car around and went home to get it,” McDonnell said. “I didn’t want to be anywhere where I couldn’t check my pulse.”

Still he was too afraid to think about surgery. Even though the procedure had become somewhat routine in the past 40 years, he says he still had a phobia of surgery and hospitals. The turning point came one day last year when he couldn’t get his heart rate to drop.

“That one was scary,” McDonnell said.

“I was scared, worried I was going to lose him,” Paige said.

“I remember seeing the Tiger,” McDonnell said reflecting on the moment he thought he might die.

He decided the risk of not having the surgery was now outweighing the risk of having it. He took the advice of his cardiologist and went to consult with Palomar Health’s Dr. Navinder Sawhney, a cardiologist who specializes in treating rhythm disorders. Dr. Sawhney has two extra years of training as an electrophysiologist beyond the three years of training after medical school to become a cardiologist.

Dr. Sawhney recommended performing a minimally invasive procedure that involves making a couple of small incisions the size of a pin in the patient’s legs, feeding plastic tubes through the incisions up through the artery to the heart and using electrical energy to destroy the extra electrical connection to the heart that causes the rapid heartbeat.

The procedure, catheter oblation, has a 95% success rate (to cure the rapid heart rate), is completed within four hours, the patient is usually sent home the same day and most patients are walking and driving the next day.

“The risk is low especially in experienced hands,” Dr. Sawhney said. “I try to assure patients I’ve done more than 1,000 catheter oblations. I know what I am doing. If you give me your trust I will do my absolute best for you.”

McDonnell did put his trust in Dr. Sawhney and now less than a year later his life has changed. He says he no longer thinks about his heart, doesn’t carry around his cuffs anymore and is planning on traveling out of the country, something he wouldn’t even consider before the surgery.

“Peace of mind is a big thing for me and I didn’t have it because of my heart but I do now,” McDonnell said.

He no longer fears seeing the tiger.

Photo Caption: Richard McDonnell’s daughter, Meredith Paige, said after heart surgery to her 74-year old father, “Are you ready to create the rest of your life now?”

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