His mother, Margaret Waltrip, was 62 at the time and had lived with atrial fibrillation, called AFib, a quivering or irregular heartbeat, for many years.
“When I was a kid, I knew my mom had an irregular heartbeat, but I didn’t know that would increase her risk for stroke,” Michael Waltrip said.
Michael Waltrip said he remembers his mother complaining of feeling like her heart was racing sometimes. She had “bad spells” where she didn’t feel well.
“She’d told her doctors about it, but didn’t realize that medication could have helped,” he said, adding that she was not given any prescriptions. “Twenty-five years ago, we didn’t have the tools we have today to learn and understand what’s going on and seek the right treatment.”
Margaret Waltrip’s feeling of a rapid or irregular heartbeat is just one of several AFib symptoms. Other symptoms include: general fatigue; fluttering or “thumping” in the chest; dizziness; shortness of breath and anxiety; weakness; faintness or confusion; fatigue when exercising; sweating; chest pain or pressure
An estimated 2.7 million Americans are living with AFib, which is the most common type of irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. AFib can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
People with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke, the leading cause of serious long-term disability and the No. 4 cause of death in Americans. Strokes that occur in AFib patients tend to be larger strokes and often cause more disability.. But awareness about the risk of stroke remains low. Only 10 percent of AFib patients report being concerned about stroke.
Margaret Waltrip’s stroke left her partially paralyzed. Her mobility continued to deteriorate until she was confined to a wheelchair, which changed life for her and the entire family. She now requires 24-hour care, which is provided through a well-choreographed dance by a combination of hired caregivers and Michel’s sister Connie Waltrip Brinkley, who lives next door.
“Everyone in the family had to step up and play a role,” Michael Waltrip said.
“Since that day 25 years ago, she hasn’t been able to do any of those things. Her quality of life isn’t anything like it used to be,” he said. “The stroke really took Mom’s freedom away from her.”
Following her stroke, Margaret Waltrip was prescribed warfarin, a blood thinning medication, or anticoagulant, meant to prevent blood clots. The medication required careful management, requiring frequent trips to the doctor and blood tests to make sure the dosage was correct.
“Mom was in a wheelchair, so that wasn’t easy for us to get her there,” he said.
The medication also came with strict dietary restrictions, to avoid any unwanted interactions.
“She loves spinach and I remember vividly we’d have it” and she had to watch closely how much she could eat, Michael Waltrip said.
When not carefully balanced with medication dosage, spinach, along with other leafy green veggies rich in vitamin K, can counteract the effectiveness of common blood thinning medications, also called anticoagulants. So those foods need to be eaten in moderation. Vitamin supplements, antibiotics, common pain relievers and cold and allergy medications can also cause unwanted interactions.
Some anticoagulants available today still require caution with certain foods, but don’t restrict them completely.
Michael Waltrip said knowing that treatment of AFib may have prevented his mother’s stroke is a powerful message to others to understand the risks and treatment options.
“My mom is my driving force behind raising awareness for AFib,” he said.
Michael Waltrip is working with NASCAR sponsor Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. to attract visitors to MyAFibStory.com, a website promoted in conjunction with the MyAFibStory.com 400 race scheduled for Sept. 14 at the Chicagoland Speedway. Visitors are encouraged to upload photos of themselves supporting AFib awareness throughout September, triggering a donation to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association.
Some of those fan photos will appear on Michael Waltrip’s car when it races at Talladega in October.