A candidate's racing heart
By Christine Gorman
December 13, 1999
Web posted at: 2:40 p.m. EST (1940 GMT)
Sometimes you just feel a little warm and dizzy. Other times your
heart is pounding so fast you're afraid it will leap out of your
chest. Either way, the irregular heartbeat caused by atrial
fibrillation can seem very alarming. But the condition, which
affects 2 million Americans and caused presidential hopeful Bill
Bradley to cancel an afternoon of West Coast appearances last
week, is not always the intimation of mortality that it seems. A
lot depends on just how healthy the heart is in the first place.
And in the case of this former Knick forward, who still
occasionally enjoys shooting hoops, the ticker appears to be in
Although Bradley's complete medical record has yet to be
released, what we do know is encouraging. His total cholesterol
level of 161 mg/dL places him solidly among the heart-smart set.
His blood pressure is an enviable 118/68, and his pulse holds
steady at 55 beats a minute.
First found to suffer from atrial fibrillation in 1996, Bradley
has had seven episodes since then. Before putting him on drugs
that kept his heartbeat regular, in 1998, doctors had to apply an
electrical current across his chest on three different occasions
to get his heartbeat back to normal. But such interventions are
routine; they are nothing like the drama-charged ER version.
Those are applied only in cases of ventricular fibrillation--a
type of irregular heartbeat that is different from the kind
Bradley has and more dangerous because it occurs in the two
chambers of the heart that do the actual pumping. Bradley's heart
settled back into its normal rhythm last week even before he
reached the hospital.
Atrial fibrillation occurs when the smaller two chambers of the
heart (the atria) contract faster than the two larger ones (the
ventricles), causing an erratic but still viable flow of blood.
"We don't know all the causes of atrial fibrillation," says Dr.
Mel Scheinman, a professor of cardiology at the University of
California at San Francisco, who is not involved in Bradley's
care. "High blood pressure or coronary-artery disease may
predispose patients to develop [the condition]." Other cases,
like Bradley's, apparently, occur for no obvious reason.
You might think stress would be a trigger--the former Senator has
been putting in 10-hr. days on the campaign trail--but most
doctors aren't convinced it's a factor. Peak physical condition,
however, doesn't necessarily provide any protection either. Last
September Indiana Pacer's coach Larry Bird revealed that he too
suffers from atrial fibrillation and developed it while playing
for the Boston Celtics.
Atrial fibrillation often resolves on its own. For someone in
Bradley's condition, it usually turns out to be more a nuisance
than a handicap. And it doesn't seem to interfere much with a
high-pressure job. Just ask former President George Bush. During
his term in office, he suffered from atrial fibrillation as a
result of his thyroid problems.
After you've experienced one bout of atrial fibrillation,
however, you're likely to have another. In some cases, that
could spell trouble. The uncoordinated beating of the heart
allows small amounts of blood to pool in the atria, where the
blood can form clots that can travel through the brain, causing
a stroke. The risk is greatest for folks 65 and older, who are
often given blood thinners like aspirin and the prescription
drug warfarin to lessen the risk. But Bradley is 56. And in a
Dec. 9 letter to the candidate, his doctor reported that the
occasional irregular heartbeat "does not, in any way, interfere
with [his] ability to function."
--By Christine Gorman.
Reported by Alice Park/New York
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Cover Date: December 20, 1999