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COURTESY: COATES KOKES - Dr. Fawaz Alhumaid became interested in studying the heart when he learned the basics of the hearts electrical system during his second year of medical school.In the field of electronics, several terms come to mind, such as amperes, capacitors, currents, diodes and ohms.

However, for cardiac surgeons, a different kind of electrical system is in play. Electrophysiology is one of the fasted growing fields in cardiac care, and at Northwest Regional Heart and Vascular (Adventist Medical Center in Portland), Dr. Fawaz Alhumaid and colleagues are hard at work analyzing the heart’s rhythm and electrical conduction system.

Alhumaid is the director of arrhythmia services at the medical center and also serves as adjunct assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University. His interest in the field started early in his studies.

“I became interested in the heart in my second year of medical school, when I learned the basics of the heart’s electrical system,” Alhumaid said. “I found the complexity of this system to be fascinating as a medical student and it quickly became my favorite topic. Fifteen years later, I still feel the same way, and I feel very lucky to work in an area that brings me great joy.”

Alhumaid describes electrophysiology as a subspecialty within cardiology that focuses on abnormalities in heart rhythm.

“For the heart to work normally, electrical signals travel through the heart tissue in a very specific and accurate way,” he said. “Various abnormalities can occur disrupting this system, causing the heart to beat too slowly, too fast, or in an irregular manner. In some cases, these abnormalities can be life threatening. An electrophysiologist treats patients with such rhythm abnormalities.”

At Northwest Regional Heart & Vascular, physicians specialize in the areas of cardiology, electrophysiology, interventional cardiology, cardiac surgery and vascular surgery.

According to Alhumaid, the interest in the heart’s electrical system existed in the early years of modern medicine. “What is relatively new is the ability to diagnose and treat such rhythm abnormalities with relatively simple procedures that are very safe, and highly successful,” he said.

While the chance of arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms) can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle, Alhumaid said, “A healthy person, however, can develop electrical abnormalities leading to irregular heart rhythm. The good news is that most of these arrhythmias can be treated, and at times cured.”

Alhumaid said a doctor will evaluate a patient with heart symptoms.

“A physical exam is performed, and an ECG (electrocardiogram) is done. An ECG shows the physician how the electrical system is functioning at that point in time,” he said. “It is a simple and basic way of assessing the electrical system, yet it can provide tremendous information about rhythm issues and the heart’s overall health.”

One condition that can strike older patients is a slow heart rate.

“In this case, the sinus node (the heart’s electrical generator) or the conduction system (the wiring within the heart) is diseased and cannot maintain a normal heart rate,” Alhumaid pointed out, noting excessive fatigue, lightheadedness, or even loss of consciousness are the common symptoms reported by patients with this condition.

The heart can also beat too quickly. In these cases, patients often feel palpitations and a heart that races. One specific condition is atrial fibrillation. “It is the most common arrhythmia in the US, with over 5 million people with this condition,” Alhumaid said. “In atrial fibrillation, abnormal electrical signals travel rapidly in the upper chambers of the heart, driving the lower chambers to beat in a fast and erratic manner, which is what a patient usually feels”

Fatigue and shortness of breath can occur with atrial fibrillation. Untreated, atrial fibrillation can lead to heart failure or, possibly, stroke.

Alhumaid said a test of the heart’s electrical system is not required in the absence of symptoms, except for certain people with high risk occupations, such as airline pilots. He added, “With that said, most people will have an ECG done, at some point, either by their primary physician or prior to a procedure or surgery. An ECG serves as a helpful baseline assessment of the heart’s electrical system.”

Looking to the future, Alhumaid is optimistic that progress is being made in the field of electrophysiology.

He said, “I feel very lucky being in such a fascinating field and having the reward of making patients feel better.”

Scott Keith is a freelance writer with the Portland Tribune and the Pamplin Media Group. If you have a health tip, or a story idea, contact Scott at [email protected]om.

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