Doctor's Innovation Makes Life-Changing Surgery Available to Heart Patient


While hiking in Peru with her husband and children, Michele Straube stopped at every switchback, wheezing and feeling dizzy. Although she was trim and athletic, uphill climbs proved especially difficult for her, often leaving her lagging behind the group or requiring her to stop and catch her breath.

Michele had atrial fibrillation, a heart rhythm disorder that can cause debilitating symptoms like shortness of breath, dizziness, extreme fatigue, palpitations, chest pain, and increased risk for strokes. Her doctors prescribed medication to help allay the symptoms so she could continue to exercise, but as she got older, the medicine became less effective and activity became more difficult. She couldn’t ride a bike or run anymore, and she knew she could count on spending the rest of the day dizzy and exhausted if she chose to go walking outside on hazy days.

Despite her condition, Michele loved living an active life and often pushed herself physically. She hiked, walked around the neighborhood with her friends, and at work opted to take the stairs rather than taking the elevator, even though she had to stop and catch her breath at every landing. Michele says, “I worked in the City and County Building at the time, and those stairs are really steep. I insisted on doing them because I’m just stubborn, and this isn’t going to get the best of me.”

Michele’s doctor had told her about an ablation surgery that would fix atrial fibrillation, but assumed that she wouldn’t be a candidate for the procedure because she had suffered from the condition for so many years. As Michele stood at the top of the pass on the hike in Peru, waiting to catch her breath, she felt angry and frustrated by her limitations and vowed to research atrial fibrillation treatments when she returned home. She needed to know she had explored every option.

Michele’s research led her to an article about Nassir Marrouche, MD, a University of Utah Health physician who believed that atrial fibrillation patients should be screened with an MRI to determine whether or not the ablation would work. “That makes so much sense,” Michele thought. “Let’s go talk to this guy!”

Marrouche ran an MRI on Michele’s heart and determined that there was a 75–85 percent chance that cardiac ablation would correct the atrial fibrillation. On November 13, 2009, Marrouche performed the procedure and it was a success. Michele says, “It worked! It continues to work, and not only can I hike anything I put my mind to, there’s a lot of uphill I can do now that I couldn’t do before.”

To celebrate her freedom from atrial fibrillation and to raise awareness about the condition, Michele and her husband organized an adventure called “Into the Heart of the Alps.” Their goal is to hike the1500-mile trail through the Alps, from Monaco to Slovenia over the course of four summers. Michele is elated to be hiking without getting winded and dizzy. “It’s beautiful,” says Michele. “It’s an opportunity for my mind to go someplace else. It’s like meditation.”

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