Cryoablation: New Hope for a Heart Out of Sync


Jon Zimmerman

Imagine you are speaking to a large audience when your heart suddenly starts fluttering and racing. You have to finish your talk without letting anyone know about the symptoms you are experiencing. Sounds like a nightmare, but this was Jon Zimmerman’s reality.

Despite these symptoms, Jon continued his grueling speaking schedule for 10 months, hoping the irregular heartbeats (arrhythmia) would stop. But they didn’t. Jon realized he had two choices: he could quit his profession or find a way to stop the arrhythmia.

First, he saw a cardiologist at another medical center but was dissatisfied with the impersonal approach. He didn’t believe he was getting the attention he needed. Then, a friend of his wife suggested he get an appointment with Virginia Mason cardiologist and electrophysiologist Christopher Fellows, MD, FACC, FHRS.

Dr. Fellows and Virginia Mason’s electrophysiology team are a regional referral center for the Pacific Northwest, and perform more than 1,800 electrophysiology tests and ablations (to correct irregular heart rhythms) a year.

“At that first visit with Dr. Fellows, I knew I was in the right hands,” Jon recalls. “Dr. Fellows was very focused on me. He asked all the right questions about my history and how I was feeling. I knew I was with a top-notch professional.”

To achieve an exact diagnosis, Jon was given a physical exam to check his pulse, blood pressure and lungs; an EKG (electrocardiogram) to record the electric impulses of his heart; a stress test to monitor his heart during exercise; a chest X-ray to view the heart and lungs; and a blood test to check for thyroid and metabolic conditions.

When the results were analyzed, it was determined Jon had an atrial flutter, which occurs when the upper chambers of the heart beat too quickly and are out of sync with the lower chambers (ventricles). He also had atrial fibrillation (AFib), when the four chambers of the heart contract at different speeds because of faulty electrical signaling.

Dr. Fellows prescribed cryoablation to restore the normal heart rhythm. During the procedure, a balloon catheter was inserted into a blood vessel in the upper leg. Using advanced imaging techniques, Dr. Fellows then threaded it though Jon’s body until it reached the heart and the inflatable balloon on the end reached the pulmonary vein.

When the balloon was at the opening of the pulmonary vein, extremely cold energy was directed through the catheter to freeze a small amount of tissue at the opening of the vein. This blocks the electrical signals that caused the AFib and restores a healthy heart rhythm.

“We have found that using cold, instead of heat, for cardiac ablation increases the chance of success and decreases the risk of serious complication,” Dr. Fellows says, adding, “Recent studies have found cryoablation to be significantly more effective than medication, and patients generally experience less pain than with radiofrequency ablation.”

“I was symptom-free as soon as the procedure was completed,” Jon states. “Dr. Fellows gave me my life back. I’m traveling and making presentations. My wife and I are able to enjoy hiking and riding our bikes again. This hospital is where miracles happen.”

Jon’s annual aftercare is with cardiologist Gordon Kritzer, MD, FACC. “The handoff was perfection personified, which added to my confidence,” he adds. “I see Dr. Kritzer every year now.”

Jon gives the attention he received at Virginia Mason high marks. “Not just those who provided and supported my care, but also the team members who communicated with me clearly so I knew what I needed to do and what to expect. They all are world-class.”

A version of this story also appears in the Virginia Mason Health System Annual Report.


  1. Sam Nicholas says:

    Well deserved KUDOS for Dr. Fellows, and the electrophysiology team, who provide excellent care and improve patient’s lives everyday!

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