Jeffrey Howlett first stepped on a pickleball court nine years ago.

Eighty-four tournament medals later—including a gold from the US Open Pickleball Championships—nothing can tear him away from the sport, or his passion to design and develop quality pickleball venues.

Not even atrial fibrillation.

In 2022, after Jeff had a cutting-edge, two-part heart surgery to treat his irregular heartbeat—known as atrial fibrillation, or A-fib—he was unable to play in one of his scheduled tournaments.

Instead, he served as captain and coach of a five-man team they named the A-fib Unit, sporting T-shirts that said, “The A-fib Unit rocks Pickleball.”

“It was so much fun,” Jeff said. “We were the underdogs, but we ended up winning the tournament.”

Jeff lives in Jenison, Michigan, with his wife of 37 years, Deborah. They have two grown children and five grandchildren.

Though his journey with atrial fibrillation has been scary and difficult at times, Jeff has brought a champion’s spirit every step of the way.

Tapping into his religious faith and deeply trusting relationship with Corewell Health cardiologist Nagib Chalfoun, MD, helped him through it all.

With emotion in his voice, Jeff spoke about a song that was released by one of his favorite performers the month of his first surgery, entitled “I’m So Blessed.”

“The words to it are, ‘I’m so blessed. I’m so blessed. Got this heartbeat in my chest,’” Jeff said. “That, to me, is the theme of everything I have been through. I do feel totally blessed.

“I have a doctor who I trust completely. I don’t think any other doctor could have been more encouraging to me or have convinced me that I should have this procedure done.”

The team approach

Jeff’s journey with atrial fibrillation started before he even knew what it was. Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia, caused when the upper chambers of the heart fail to beat effectively to move blood into the ventricles.

Left untreated, it can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other complications.

He was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2011, when he suddenly began to have symptoms.

“When it would come on, I would feel my heart beating out of my chest,” Jeff said. “I didn’t know what was happening and it really wasn’t talked about like it is nowadays.”

Eventually, his condition worsened to the point he ended up in the emergency department. His heart was skipping beats or racing and his wife, Deborah, who is a nurse technician, couldn’t take his pulse because it was so unsteady.

Jeff ended up in the hospital for three days while doctors ran a battery of tests on his heart. He went home once his heart rhythm had stabilized and returned to regular rhythm.

Two weeks later, he felt the problem return.

“It alarmed me once again,” Jeff said. “I still didn’t have a good grasp of what it was and why it was happening.”

Still, he continued with his normal life, including golfing and playing softball. He experienced shortness of breath and distracting palpitations, but that didn’t stop him from his activities.

This continued for a few years, with doctors treating his condition with various medications.

In 2013, Jeff’s wife insisted he make an appointment with Dr. Chalfoun, an electrophysiology cardiologist who specializes in treating the heart’s electrical system.

Instantly, Jeff was impressed at how personable and caring he was.

At that time, Dr. Chalfoun treated Jeff with what’s commonly called a “pill in the pocket.”

“If I went into A-fib, then I would take the pill and it would bring me back into rhythm within 10 or 15 minutes,” Jeff said.

That worked for a while. But eventually, Jeff began experiencing atrial fibrillation for longer periods. He saw various cardiologists annually, but he requested to see Dr. Chalfoun again. Jeff’s symptoms seemed to be changing, and he noticed he was more tired on the pickleball court. Even walking up a flight of stairs made him out of breath.

In January 2022, Jeff learned he had longstanding persistent atrial fibrillation.

Dr. Chalfoun presented a solution: a new surgery, called a convergent procedure, which treats longstanding persistent A-fib. It happens in two stages.

First, a cardiac surgeon performs a minimally invasive surgical ablation to redirect the heart’s electrical signals. Then, a month or two later, an electrophysiologist performs a catheter ablation to reinforce and extend the lesions.

For patients with longstanding persistent A-fib—when they have irregular heartbeat for more than a year—a typical ablation works 50 percent of the time. With this procedure, that jumps to 70 percent, Dr. Chalfoun said.

Corewell Health is one of a handful of hospitals in Michigan that perform this procedure, according to Dr. Chalfoun.

And before the COVID-19 pandemic, Corewell Health was one of the Top 10 highest-volume providers for this procedure in the U.S., he said.

In fact, Dr. Chalfoun delivers presentations across the country about the procedure.

“We are fortunate to have a strong teamwork approach to it,” he said.

That team includes heart surgeons, electrophysiology cardiologists, dietitians, sleep specialists, emergency department physicians and more.

All of this knowledge gave Jeff the confidence he needed to move ahead with the surgery.

‘It’s just a wonderful feeling’

The next task at hand: working the procedure around a busy schedule.

Jeff worked during the day as a tool and die designer in the sheet metal tooling industry, and he also saw to the demands of being an active certified pickleball instructor, a sponsored player and volunteer chairman of the enhancement committee at Belknap Park for the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club. He also played in 12 to 15 pickleball tournaments a year.

While he couldn’t play in one of those tournaments in early August, his experience with Team A-fib is one he will fondly remember. He still jokes with players today about Team A-fib’s motto, “We make your heart skip a beat with every shot.”

The surgery worked for Jeff. Now, he also jokes with other players with the words from the song, “I’ve Got Rythym.”

“I have felt good all along since the surgeries in July and August,” Jeff said. “I don’t get winded walking up stairs anymore.”

And that has only improved his experience and endurance on the pickleball courts, he said.

After Thanksgiving last year, he sent a message to Dr. Chalfoun expressing his gratitude: “Keep up the work you’re doing in this field … changing people’s lives forever and for that I give you a sincere thanks from the top and bottom of my heart.”

Dr. Chalfoun said that meant the world to him.

“That’s really why you wake up in the morning and do what you do,” he said. “There’s no other job that gives you that kind of fulfillment. I have wanted to do this since I was 5 years old. I really do try to develop a relationship with my patients and treat them like family members. I really do care for them.”

He’s wishing the best for Jeff.

“Jeff is every physician’s dream as a patient,” Dr. Chalfoun said.

He’s hopeful that because of this treatment, Jeff will be able to continue with minimal medications and maintain his active lifestyle—and continue with his pickleball career.

“It’s just a wonderful feeling,” Dr. Chalfoun said. “There’s no words to explain that.”