The British Heart Foundation (BFH) explains that arrhythmia is a medical term for an abnormal heart rhythm. The heart is controlled by the conductions system, which sends out electrical impulses and causes heart beats. However, when there is a problem within the conduction system, the heart can either beat too slowly, too quickly or in an irregular way. Although most arrhythmias can be manageable, for others it can be an “emotionally challenging” condition to deal with.
Blessed, who is best known for his TV roles in Blackadder and stage appearances in Cats, shocked audiences after he collapsed on stage whilst playing Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Aware at the time of his “little fibrillation”, Blessed had underestimated the severity it was causing on his life, motivating him to pay for a state-of-the-art pacemaker to be fitted.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of arrhythmia. The condition involves individuals having a fast heart rhythm, similar to a supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) or atrial flutter, the first of which is described by BHF as a “very fast heart rhythm”. And the second, “a fast heart rhythm where the atria contract at a very fast rate compared to the ventricles”.
When the heart beats too fast (faster than 90bpm) it may not be pumping enough blood round the rest of the body, meaning organs and tissues may not get enough oxygen. This may then lead to symptoms such as:
- Sensation of a racing, pounding heartbeat or flopping in the chest (palpitations)
- Chest pain
- Fainting (syncope)
- Rapid pulse rate
- Shortness of breath.
On the other hand, arrhythmias known as a tachy-brady syndrome (sick sinus syndrome) and heart blocks lead to slower heart rates, less than 60bpm. Again with a slow heart rate, organs and tissues may not get oxygen fast enough, causing similar symptoms to the ones listed above.
Explaining in an interview why he thought he developed the condition in the first place, Blessed said: “I had severe fibrillation, but the reason is this old bugger has climbed Everest three times, walked across the North Pole, scaled mountains and volcanoes and trained as an astronaut.
“I’ve taken terrible risks, and I’ve put my heart under severe strain. But do you know what… my heart has been voted by Prince Philip’s surgeons as the strongest they’ve seen in a man of my age.”
Other common causes of arrhythmias include severe medical conditions such as heart attacks, heart failure and coronary heart disease, all of which can be life-threatening conditions.
It was due to the fact that the star thought he was “slowing down a bit” that led him to spend a whopping £27,000 on the pacemaker, which he said has made him “feel like a man of 20”.
A common treatment for arrhythmias, pacemakers are small electrical devices implanted into the chest. Used instead with the “sinus node”, the heart’s natural pacemaker, the device sends an electrical impulse to make your heart beat.
Most pacemakers work just when they’re needed – on demand, but some send out impulses all of the time. These devices are called fixed rate.
Speaking about his procedure, Blessed went on to say: “It’s the most advanced in the world – I’ve had it for about three years. It only took doctors 15 minutes to insert it, and within half a day I felt about 20 years of age.
“Apparently I had no cholesterol, so they just fed the device straight through the heart, and it was all finished before I knew it.
“Before that I’d felt I was slowing down a bit. If I go on a great big adventure, they adjust the speed: ‘There you go, Brian, it will be just perfect for the North Pole’.”
Due to the success of his own pacemaker, Blessed has supported campaigns in the past, warning others of the main symptoms of heart failure, one of the main causes of arrhythmias.
Back in 2021 he was quoted saying: “I won’t let problems of the heart stop me. I think this campaign by the British Society for Heart Failure is vitally important.”
After having a pacemaker inserted, individuals should be able to return to their daily routine within a few days. However they should not do any lifting or pulling on anything for a few weeks.
Not all individuals with an arrhythmia will need pacemakers, and as the BHF explains, there are other treatment options available, including medication, cardioversion and catheter ablation. These procedures help to correct abnormal heart rhythms by blocking electrical pathways to the heart or sending controlled electric signals to your heart through electrodes placed on the chest.
Since his surgery, despite being around 17st in weight, Blessed has said that he leads a “tremendously” healthy lifestyle. He added: “I’m a black belt in judo, I run two miles a day and do two hours in my gym at home.
“I do a tremendous amount of weights and a lot on the bike. I eat a tremendous amount of vegetables, bags of fruit, plus Quaker oats. My favourite food is Bulgarian yoghurt [which has a more sour taste].”
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