In February, 55-year-old Terry Riggs ran the best 5K of his life, finishing the race in 25:10 and coming in 32nd of 148 participants.

It was an accomplishment he couldn’t have imagined just five years ago.

His medical journey began in 2011 when his fiancée, Cassie, rested her head against his chest before heading to her job as a nurse and asked, “What’s wrong with your heart?”

According to Riggs, his heart felt “bouncy” in his chest, but he didn’t realize it was a problem, and he didn’t recognize the connection between his heart and his fatigue.

Cassie persuaded him to get an electrocardiogram, which quickly led to an emergency room trip despite Riggs’ protests that he needed to get to work.

At the emergency room, he was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, often called AFib, a condition that caused his heart to skip and jump erratically. An electrical cardioversion shocked his heart back into normal rhythm that day, but it wasn’t a permanent solution. Medication didn’t work, either.

Eventually Riggs was referred to Darryl Elmouchi, MD, chief of the division of cardiovascular medicine at Spectrum Health Medical Group.

“There are two types of AFib—paroxysmal, which comes and goes, and the persistent type, which is what Terry had,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “The persistent type is more challenging to treat.”

Don’t take your good health for granted. If you get a second chance, embrace it!

Terry Riggs
Atrial fibrillation patient and runner

Dr. Elmouchi recommended catheter ablation, a procedure that uses wires to either burn or freeze abnormal areas in the heart’s electrical system. It usually takes two or three hours and requires a one-night hospital stay.

“This technology has been around for more than a decade, but the technology has dramatically improved over the last four to five years,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “Today we have one of the busiest electrophysiology labs in the nation with seven board-certified EP doctors, and we do well over 1,000 procedures a year.”

Riggs had his first ablation at Meijer Heart Center in 2012, using the heat method. It helped at first, but soon his symptoms returned, and he was even lagging behind on walks with Harvey, their newly-adopted pit bull terrier mix.

Because the AFib returned, Dr. Elmouchi performed a second ablation, this time using both heat and cold.

His life-threatening issue, which could have led to a stroke, is now a managed heart problem.

“These procedures can be very life beneficial, but they require work on the patient’s part, too,” Dr. Elmouchi said. “Surgery itself only provides short-term relief unless the patient reaches a healthy weight and has an active lifestyle.”

Riggs has taken that advice seriously. As he said, “I got my life back.”

A healthy addiction

A few months after his second ablation, Riggs saw a promotion for the 2015 St. Patrick’s Day Run/Walk in Blue Lake Township. He decided to celebrate his return to health by walking the 5K event and persuaded Cassie, now his wife, to join him.

Walking led to running, and one race led to another. Riggs completed 13 races throughout 2015, and he’s running again this year.

“It’s like a healthy addiction,” said Riggs, who trains several times a week and drives throughout West Michigan for running events.

“Training is the work, but race day is the party. I drive my wife crazy because I’m so ramped up on race day,” Riggs said. “Someday, I’d like to be the old guy at the races, to still be running when I’m 80 or 90.”

His advice to others: “Don’t take your good health for granted. If you get a second chance, embrace it!”

Dr. Elmouchi, who trains daily and ran his first marathon in Chicago last year, couldn’t agree more.