By James Walsh, The Minneapolis Start Tribune
7:37 PM EST, January 30, 2013
Marcus McCleery, the 372-pound version of him, had nothing to look forward to. Suffering from atrial fibrillation, an abnormally rapid beating of his heart that would leave him exhausted, he was so depressed that he did little more than sleep, eat and sag into a basement sofa and play video games until 2 or 3 in the morning.
"I was knocking on 400 pounds' door — when you lay on the couch all the time and feel defeated."
Medication didn't work. Neither did an earlier surgery to correct his heart. Then, three years ago, a cardiologist at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis performed a second ablation, searing away tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal rhythms.
In the past decade, catheter ablation to correct atrial fibrillation has gone from a novel approach to mainstream treatment. Doctors at Abbott Northwestern's Minneapolis Heart Institute perform the procedure more than 700 times a year.
With McCleery's normal heart rhythm restored, he had no more excuses. It was time to get off the couch.
At first, Dr. Bill Katsiyiannis told him, start small. "Just move 15 minutes a day."
"I can do that," McCleery recalls.
Before long, 15 minutes became 20, 20 became 30, 30 became 60. Then a friend who ran in triathlons convinced McCleery to come watch.
Slowly, surely, his life began to change. McCleery started eating better, smarter. Walking morphed into running, then swimming, bicycling and kayaking. In a year, McCleery was down to 186 pounds. After three years, he's a fit and muscular 205 pounds, running in triathlons and half-marathons and oozing confidence. He has launched a website to help inspire others who, like he had, have lost hope.
Turning the corner
McCleery had been a two-sandwich-from-McDonald's guy. It was not surprising, then, when the pounds started piling on. Yet, his atrial fibrillation made it nearly impossible to exercise. Millions of people have atrial fibrillation, which can lead to increased risk of stroke and heart failure.
McCleery tried different diets and lost weight, only to regain it. He had had surgery once before, after which he tried to do more healthy things, said his wife, Rebecca. But, after a while, his atrial fibrillation came back.
Doctors then tried different medications and thought they got it under control. But, after almost a year, his heart again returned to its erratic and exhausting rhythm. And McCleery just kept getting bigger.
Then Katsiyiannis tried a new medication and another ablation.
Sometimes, as Katsiyiannis said, technology "kind of clears away the brush" to give people "a full head of steam."
During the procedure, doctors pinpoint and obliterate extra tissue on the heart that interferes with its normal electrical signals and causes it to beat rapidly and inefficiently.
There are key areas of the upper chambers of the heart, the atria, where abnormal signals are generated. Using a catheter-based device, Katsiyiannis cauterized those areas during a three-hour procedure. McCleery was out of the hospital the next day.
McCleery's heart rhythm returned to normal, but he was leery the change would last.
"Dr. Katsiyiannis said, 'Go live your life.' But it was still a little while before Marcus decided to make the change," Rebecca McCleery said. "Then he went in for another checkup."
The doctor said, "I want you to move, just move, for 15 minutes a day.'"
So that's what he did. Then he joined a health club. But the trainer there told him not to run or go hard until he weighed less than 300 pounds. "So, I went easy for the first 72 pounds," he said.
Once below 300 pounds, McCleery started running 50 paces, then walking 25. Then it was 75 and 10. Then he ran.
He eliminated processed sugars and alcohol from his diet. His waist, once 57 inches, began shrinking.
"There is no doubt this ablation procedure changed his life," said Matt Lewis, McCleery's best friend. "I would get phone calls from Marcus when he was in a fibrillation. You could tell from the tone of his voice, he was just so depressed."
Lewis, who had also started eating healthier and exercising, became active in triathlons. He wanted McCleery to come watch.
"He was starting to get on a healthier track, but he was still very heavy at the time," Lewis said. "I wanted him to come, to see the atmosphere. I said, 'You're going to do this with me next year.'"
McCleery has transformed himself. His 57-inch waist is now 34 inches. Hardly a week goes by that he is not racing, riding or doing something active. His atrial fibrillation has not returned.
McCleery now runs his own business out of his home, and, he said, he hopes to serve as an example to others. He launched a website, Move 15 Minutes a Day (move15minutesaday.com), to share his experience.
The one thing McCleery says he's most thankful for is wellness. "To have a well mind, body and spirit is all I could hope for! I am a better man because of this journey! I am a better friend. I am a better family member."
2.66 million: Estimated number of people in the U.S. in 2010 who had atrial fibrillation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The condition increases ischemic stroke risk by five times.
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