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June 30, 2022

Father and son share heart health journey

IU Health Saxony Hospital

Father and son share heart health journey

After experiencing irregular heart rhythms for most of their lives, a father and his son found expert treatment at IU Health Saxony Hospital.

By Charlotte Stefanski,

Ronald Durbin had picked up basketball in his late 20s, playing five or six times a week. After an hour or two though, he could feel his heart begin to have an episode. 

His pulse would become rapid, feeling similar to palpitations, like it was trying to beat out of his chest. 

“My heart was just pounding like crazy, like it's doing its own little drum solo, just for forever,” Ronald said. 

Ronald, who has been in local law enforcement for 31 years, had always been able to return his heart rate to normal, whether it be by drinking cold water or doing breathing exercises. 

But 10 years ago, things got worse after a few hours of basketball. His heart rate rose to about 240 beats-per-minute, and it remained that way until paramedics arrived at his house 45 minutes later. 

To restore a regular heart rhythm, they had to perform a cardioversion procedure using medication. He was later warned if the medication didn’t work in the future, they’d have to shock him with paddles. 

Between now and then, Ronald experienced a few more episodes during exercise. One of his physicians at IU Health Saxony—soon to be IU Health Fishers—Dr. Ali Iqtidar, raised his Cardizem dosage to help with the episodes.  

Dr. Ali Iqtidar, cardiologist
Dr. Ali Iqtidar, cardiologist

Something different happened this February though. While Ronald was working at the Sheriff’s Department, he walked from his office to use the restroom, went and picked up a bottle of water, and returned to his desk. As he sat down, he could feel his heart rate elevating. 

“I tried taking my pulse, but I couldn’t count that fast. I tried everything I knew of,” he explained. “I tried bearing down and that didn’t work. I drank a bottle of cold water, stood outside—and it was pretty cold out. None of that seemed to help.” 

He was about to take himself to the hospital, but a co-worker got worried and called an ambulance for him, and paramedics once again had to perform a cardioversion. 

It was the first time an episode had happened without exercise, and Dr. Iqtidar referred Ronald to Dr. Tony Navarrete, a cardiologist at IU Health Saxony, who focuses on complex procedures to treat arrhythmias, atrial fibrillation and more. 

Dr. Antonio Navarrete, cardiologist
Dr. Antonio Navarrete, cardiologist

Ronald had been diagnosed with super ventricular tachycardia (SVT), an irregularly fast or erratic heartbeat (arrhythmia) that affects the heart's upper chambers. To treat it, Dr. Navarrete performed an electrophysiology (EP) ablation on Ronald this March. 

“The heart has an electrical system; that’s the one that tells the heart how to contract and relax,” Dr. Navarrete explained. “A normal heart conduction system is a group of cells that start at the heart’s top chamber and generate an electrical current and stops with the bottom chambers.” 

“That's the normal electrical activity. Some people have electrical problems where the electrical activity is not going to the right pathways,” he continued. “They can short circuit in the heart.” 

To fix that, an ablation is performed. During the procedure, catheters are inserted into veins near the groin area and up into the heart.  

The catheters have sensors at the top, which send electrical impulses to the heart. This helps physicians find and treat the area causing irregular rhythms. 

Dr. Navarrete added it is minimally invasive, and patients can be awake and sedated, or be under general anesthesia. Patients can go home the same day and are usually back to their regular activities after a few days. 

“The idea of the ablation is that we can take care of and cure patients, so they don't have to be taking medication long-term,” Dr. Navarrete said. “Because a medication usually doesn’t fix this problem, it just kind of quiets it down.” 

Because of all of this, ablations have become very popular among cardiac patients. Twenty years ago, Dr. Navarrete said he might have performed one a week. Now, he’s doing four or five. 

This wasn’t his first time doing the procedure on a member of the Durbin family either. Back in 2016, Ronald’s son, Robby, underwent the same procedure at just 18 years old. 

While his father’s symptoms were typically exercise-induced, Robby was the opposite, with his heart rate going up while he was resting. He was also diagnosed with super ventricular tachycardia. 

The episodes would happen out of nowhere, even when he was just sitting down at dinner or playing video games. 

“It would feel almost like a snare drum, like from a marching band,” Robby explained. “Occasionally, it felt like my heart would send out a super hard punch.” 

While Ronald’s episodes were somewhat predictable being exercised-induced, Robby’s were not, and that worried Ronald and his wife, who is a nurse. 

“That was pretty scary with him,” Ronald said. 

After Robby’s heart rate spiked up to 180 one night, his parents took him to the hospital and he was given an electrocardiogram (EKG), which records the electrical signals in the heart. As they went home, he was given a portable EKG to keep track. 

“I think it was only a day or two, and they called my mom and told her that I needed to have an ablation—immediately—because of my resting heart rate while I was sleeping,” Robby said. 

Dr. Navarrete performed the ablation in August 2016. For an 18-year-old, it was a scary ordeal.  

“I was terrified. Everybody was saying, ‘We never have 18-year-olds in here,” Robby said. “It was mind rattling to do that and not really know what the outcome was going to be.” 

For both father and son, recovery time went by quickly, with just a few days of soreness and difficulty walking. Now 24-years-old, Robby has followed in his dad’s footsteps and is a Sheriff’s deputy at the same station. He added that his resting heart rate has remained in the normal range since the procedure. 

Since this spring, Ronald has also been episode-free, and regularly checks in with Dr. Iqtidar. He also has an app on his phone that monitors his heart for anything irregular. 

Both father and son wanted to thank Dr. Navarrete and the IU Health Saxony team for taking care of them. 

“For everybody and Dr. Navarrete, thank you for letting me get a good start on life and have a chance to do something that I love to do. Being a cop, that’s something I've always wanted to do,” Robby said. “This definitely could have messed it up for me, so I’m thankful every day for that, and for my dad too, for helping him get out of surgery and making sure he was okay.” 

The Durbins have some advice for anyone experiencing the same issue or different heart health issues. 

For Ronald, he said the one thing he wishes he would have done differently is get his heart checked out sooner, and not just attribute the issue to physical activity. While super ventricular tachycardia (SVT) is serious, he knows he could have had a more serious or deadly condition. 

“If it doesn't feel right, go get it checked out,” he said. 

Robby echoed that and advised that people make healthier decisions. While SVT can be genetic, he admitted to not always treating his heart well as teenager, recalling that he used to drink harmful energy drinks prior to working out. 

He’s also been listening to his body more and choosing healthier options that do not irritate his heart. 

“My blood pressure, whenever it goes up, I get a pain in my chest now. It's a little bit more noticeable, but now I know that I have SVT,” he said. “If I'm pushing myself hard or working too much, I feel it. I know that I need to dial it back a little bit.” 

Dr. Navarrete added there are also many forms of cardiac care now, and not all of them involve medication. Instead, things can be helped or even fixed by procedures, like an ablation. 

“We need to be listening to our hearts; if our heart is pounding, beating fast, irregular, if we’re getting short of breath, if we’re not able to do the activities that we want to do,” Dr. Navarrete said. “We don’t have to be on a bunch of medications. There are potential options that could help with this and make your life easier.” 

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