Tom James, 29, double Olympic gold medallist suffered from atrial fibrillation during the lead up to the London 2012 Olympics. A prompt diagnosis resulted in fast and effective treatment and ultimately saved his place in the gold medal winning team.
“Back in December 2011, during the training and selection process for the upcoming London Olympic Games, I was given the worrying news that I had the heart condition, atrial fibrillation.
"This came as a huge shock to me, particularly as at first I just assumed I had the virus that had been going round the team. However, due to the extreme fatigue and persistence of my symptoms, even walking upstairs made me out of breath, I soon realised that it had to be something more and went for further medical tests.
"It was identified that I had an erratic heartbeat and through the Bupa health insurance provided to all UK Sport athletes, I was referred to a consultant who diagnosed me as suffering from atrial fibrillation. I was devastated. As an Olympic athlete you are accustomed to getting injured, but for me this felt much more serious and life affecting. The timing couldn’t have been worse as I had been working hard to recover from a long list of injuries and I was fighting for my place in the boat. I needed to be at my physical peak. Suddenly, I was faced with a condition that I felt I couldn’t control or navigate through. This wasn’t simply a torn muscle or even something visible; it was my heart and it felt very frustrating and upsetting.
"When I realised I had a cardiac problem I also felt confused and worried. I am young, healthy and very fit and I certainly didn’t expect to have a heart condition. I also had the added strain of knowing that time was of the essence and any further time off from rowing was likely to scupper my Olympic dreams. I was extremely lucky, however, because my prompt diagnosis meant that I was given the correct treatment very quickly. I have since learnt that the speed at which you are treated has a huge impact on the success of your treatment and recovery. In fact, if it is not caught early, it can be impossible to return your heart back to its natural rhythm.
"Fortunately, I responded well to treatment; my heart went back into sinus rhythm and I was told that I could be back in a boat within about four weeks. I was off training for five weeks in total and it substantially affected my training; not qualifying became a very real possibility. I did however finally manage to earn the last seat in the top four man boat, which went on to win gold in the London 2012 Olympics. This was an incredible feeling, not only because it was my second gold medal but also because I felt I had overcome a huge health hurdle. Had I been diagnosed two weeks later, I would have been eliminated from the top boat and the story would have had a very different ending.
"I have since discovered a strong family history of atrial fibrillation and it has been interesting to hear how my treatment and experience compares. My uncle’s situation really brings home the importance of early detection and treatment. He wasn’t diagnosed until he had a mid-life insurance medical which found an irregular heartbeat. Unfortunately, it was too late for it to be corrected and he hasn’t been in sinus rhythm since.
"My health is generally good now, I will probably have another episode at some point but I feel well informed enough to understand the condition and how to manage it. My experience has highlighted to me just how important it is to raise awareness of this heart problem. In doing so I hope to help others spot the symptoms early on and encourage them to see a medical professional as soon as possible, which will ensure that they – like me - can return to a normal, healthy lifestyle.”
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Better heart care
If you or someone in your family has experienced atrial fibrillation, this guide is for you.
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