Amy Beyer’s journey on the road to heart health began with a crash.
On a Saturday in August 2010, Amy was driving her husband’s pickup truck into town for new tires. Her son rode along. Amy had been feeling fine all day until they left for town; she felt lightheaded and experienced “déjà-vu” feelings that would come and go.
“All of a sudden my 12-year-old yells, ‘Mom, Mom! You just wrecked Dad’s truck!’” she says.
Amy had passed out. She doesn’t remember hitting the guard rail. Her son helped steer the pickup to the side of the highway as Amy regained consciousness. In fact, she didn’t believe there’d been an accident until they stopped the truck and she saw the damage. Luckily, no one was hurt, and a potential tragedy was avoided.
The following Monday, Amy called her doctor, who referred her to specialists in nearby Clinton, including Denice Zingman, MD, a University of Iowa Heart and Vascular Center cardiologist and electrophysiologist who provides outreach care at Medical Associates of Clinton.
Amy’s CT scan, MRI, and other tests couldn’t pinpoint the exact cause of her problem. Amy didn’t have a family history of fainting (also known as syncope) or sudden death; the only notable family medical issue was that Amy’s father had died of the rare disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But in Amy’s case, “no one could figure out why it had happened,” she says.
In November 2010, Zingman inserted an implantable heart monitor in Amy’s chest. The small device continuously records and stores information about the heart’s electrical activity, which can help doctors diagnose potential heart rhythm disturbances.
Seven months later, Amy passed out again, this time in the office at Medical Associates of Clinton where she works. She felt fine afterward, but Amy lost consciousness again later that day at the pharmacy.
Just days earlier, and unbeknownst to Amy, Zingman had made a remarkable discovery at UI Heart and Vascular Center in Iowa City. While seeing a patient and family members from the Clinton area with a history of arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), Zingman listened as they described an uncle who had died of ALS. A couple of questions later, and it was clear that the uncle was indeed Amy’s father.
“Dr. Zingman put two and two together,” Amy says.
More important, it was clear that arrhythmias were causing of Amy’s fainting problems. In fact, Amy’s heart monitor had recorded her two most recent episodes and showed that her heart was asystole—a state of no activity—for 20 seconds each time. In other words, Amy had “flat-lined” twice and easily could have died.
“The amazing thing,” Amy says, “is that while we were at the doctor’s office trying to call Dr. Zingman, she had left me a message saying, ‘I need you in Iowa City now.’”
Amy’s actual medical diagnosis was a condition called long QT syndrome, a typically inherited disorder of the heart’s electrical system that causes arrhythmias.
“I didn’t know it existed,” Amy says. “It’s a genetic condition through my dad’s family. I found out that my cousin and her daughter also have it.”
To correct the problem, Amy received an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), a small device that’s placed in the chest. An ICD uses electrical pulses to help control the arrhythmias and prevent further, potentially fatal, fainting spells.
Since her ICD procedure, Amy has had no issues. She feels “great” and credits her medical team. She also emphasizes the importance of sharing medical details, such as family history of disease, with your doctor.
“Dr. Zingman picked up on that one piece of information, and it made the difference,” she says.
University of Iowa Heart and Vascular Center is the proud Eastern Iowa sponsor of the American Heart Association.