If you saw Rochelle “Rocky” Oakley today walking to the top of the 1,900-ft. Montara Mountain near her home in Pacifica, you would never know that less than six months before she could barely walk uphill and had to stop to catch her breath when walking up stairs.
Oakley suffered from atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heart beat that causes poor blood flow, shortness of breath, heart palpitations and sometimes stroke. Her condition was controlled by medications for several years, but she never realized how much life she was missing.
“I feel 10 years younger,” Oakley says. “Until I was in normal sinus rhythm, I had forgotten how good I could feel and the freedom it gives you not to worry about whether you might need to stop or limit activities because you can’t breathe.”
This reaction does not surprise Christopher Woods, M.D., the Mills-Peninsula electrophysiologist who performed an ablation to get Oakley’s heart working properly.
“AFib does not strike like a lightning bolt of a heart attack,” Dr. Woods says. “Patients don’t notice how they have changed their lives to accommodate their disease. Ablation was a transformational procedure for Rocky and her story is so important because it shows how damaging AFib can be.”
Putting the Patient First
Dr. Woods listens carefully to the goals his patients are aiming for and tries to tackle their problems through minimally invasive procedures. He tested to see if he could bring Oakley’s heart into normal rhythm using drugs, which would serve as a sign that he could treat her with ablation.
“Having this disease is like making two cylinders of your heart run without fuel injectors,” Dr. Woods says. “No mechanic would let you do that, and as a doctor, I don’t want my patients to do that either.”
Dr. Woods uses groundbreaking 3D mapping software purchased through donor gifts, to create virtual reality images of the heart’s electrical patterns. Using a small incision in the patient’s leg vein guiding a catheter to the effected region, he can perform an ablation to correct the irregularities in the heart rhythm. His specialty is the only one in cardiac medicine that offers a cure.
“The earlier I treat a patient, the better the chances of a total cure. But 70 to 80 percent of the time, we have success even if we need to go back in a second time.”
One in three people will suffer from AFib by the time they reach 80. Patients like Oakley undergoing ablation have a lower risk for stroke while they improve the quality of their life. When caught early enough, Dr. Woods explains that some of his patients won’t need to take blood thinners after 65, again reducing unwanted symptoms and possible complications.
Oakley is a healthcare industry veteran, working as a physical therapist for the last 35 years with some of the Bay Area’s major health providers. When Oakley lost her job, one window closed and a very important window opened – she landed a position with Sutter Care at Home.
Oakley was happy about her new job, but she didn’t realize she was also gaining access to the premier cardiovascular program in the Bay Area. Oakley had known surgery was an option, but she was struggling to lose some weight before proceeding. With Dr. Wood’s expertise and encouragement, she decided to stop waiting. To her delight after surgery, in addition to being able to walk and exercise, she began losing weight much faster.
“Dr. Woods is exceedingly talented and quite charming,” Oakley says. “He made me feel comfortable to move forward with surgery and I have my life back now. The entire experience at Mills-Peninsula was first rate.”