Discover more from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Why I Should Not Have Tried to "Walk It Off"
My unexpected journey with Atrial Fibrillation (AFib)
The following blog post is brought to you by the No Time to Wait Campaign.
I was a high-performing athlete for most of my adult life, so I was used to the resulting physical pain. I also endured decades experiencing migraines. My usual treatment for everything was ice and over-the-counter pain relievers.
But in more recent years, I was no longer dealing with overworked muscles, strained tendons, or a wrenched back; I had to face new health challenges.
So much for just ice and pain relievers.
Recently, my body gave me another challenging health issue – a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, or AFib. It started as a minor annoyance. Sometimes when I got out of bed, I noticed shortness of breath and light-headedness. It came and went so I didn’t worry about it. I shrugged it off as another age-related inconvenience to be endured and complained about. But I was wrong.
During the past few years, I wondered whether I had been too quick to dismiss symptoms as related to aging. I was beginning to feel like my body and my mind were two separate entities struggling for control.
That is a common mistake some people make for a variety of reasons. I didn’t relish going to the doctor in the first place, but I really didn’t want to go and be thought of as being an alarmist, looking for attention, complaining about nothing. I also didn’t want to go and receive bad news about my body that might require more medication (I’m going to need a bigger medicine box!), bed rest, or worse.
These thoughts crossed my mind when I was visiting my son, Amir, and his young children. I started to have the same symptoms again – the shortness of breath, the light-headedness. I kept it from my family, especially Amir, who’s a surgeon and would probably have encouraged me to talk to my doctor; I didn’t want anything to interfere with my time with my grandchildren. I returned home after a few days having successfully hidden my condition.
A few months later, I went to a baseball game with some friends. We were sitting in the sun for 20 minutes and I started to feel light-headed. The former athlete in me chose to soldier on. I’d promised my friends we’d get some autographs from a few of the players, and we went down to meet them. That’s when I started experiencing shortness of breath and felt so light-headed, I thought I would faint. My friend and manager, Deborah, rushed me to the hospital.
After some tests, the doctors diagnosed me with AFib. To which I responded, “What is that?” I had heard the term AFib before, probably on a medical drama on TV, but I had no clue what it was. The doctors explained that AFib is the most common irregular heart rhythm. I didn’t know that about 9.5 million people in the U.S. are projected to have AFib in 2023 and by 2030 it is projected that the number will reach approximately 12.1 million. I didn’t know that AFib contributes to about 158,000 deaths each year.3 I didn’t know that AFib makes the risk of stroke about five times more likely. And I didn’t know that Black Americans also have a significantly higher risk of AFib-related stroke,despite being diagnosed with AFib at lower rates than White Americans.
I sure know all of this now. If I had known about AFib, perhaps I wouldn’t have dismissed my symptoms. I could have spoken with a doctor and gotten diagnosed before my symptoms landed me in the hospital.
That’s why I am joining Bristol Myers Squibb and Pfizer in their No Time to Wait campaign to raise awareness about AFib and its symptoms. I know how easy it may be to dismiss symptoms of AFib, but that can lead to serious complications like AFib-related stroke.3
Knowing the common symptoms of AFib is important; these include an irregular heartbeat, racing heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, or light-headedness.3 These symptoms can be associated with other potentially serious conditions and only a healthcare professional can determine whether these symptoms indicate AFib.
I left the hospital with a treatment plan and a mission to keep myself hydrated, watch what I eat, and monitor my symptoms. It was hard to deal with the symptoms, but I think it was harder still on my friends and family. I decided to do everything in my power to work with my care team to better manage my condition.
Today, I can walk, even run a little. I do strength training. I hydrate because that is something I neglected in the past.
I’ve also reached an agreement with my body: when I get certain symptoms I won’t “walk it off,” “rub some dirt on it,” or “grin and bear it.” I’m going straight to a medical professional. Understanding my condition allows me to take better care of myself and spend more time with my grandchildren. I have a lot more play days set up and I don’t want to miss any of them.
Discussing the common symptoms of AFib with a healthcare professional can help lead to earlier diagnosis; these common symptoms include an irregular heartbeat, racing heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, or light-headedness.3 These symptoms can be associated with other potentially serious conditions and only a healthcare professional can determine whether these symptoms indicate AFib.
If you’ve experienced these symptoms, speak up and talk to your doctor – this is no time to wait. For more information, you can visit. NoTimetoWait.com
 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). What is atrial fibrillation? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/atrial-fibrillation
 Colilla S, Crow A, Petkun W, Singer DE, Simon T, Liu X. Estimates of current and future incidence and prevalence of atrial fibrillation in the U.S. adult population. Am J Cardiol. 2013;112:1142–1147. doi: 10.1016/j.amjcard.2013.05.063.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, October 14). Atrial fibrillation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 3, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/atrial_fibrillation.htm
 High blood pressure, afib and your risk of stroke. www.heart.org. (2022, September 14). Retrieved October 20, 2022, from https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/atrial-fibrillation/why-atrial-fibrillation-af-or-afib-matters/high-blood-pressure-afib-and-your-risk-of-stroke
 Patel, P. J., Katz, R., Borovskiy, Y., Killian, A., Levine, J. M., McNaughton, N. W., Callans, D., Supple, G., Dixit, S., Epstein, A. E., Marchlinski, F. E., & Deo, R. (2018). Race and stroke in an atrial fibrillation inception cohort: Findings from the Penn Atrial Fibrillation Free study. Heart rhythm, 15(4), 487–493. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hrthm.2017.11.025
 Alonso, A., Agarwal, S. K., Soliman, E. Z., Ambrose, M., Chamberlain, A. M., Prineas, R. J., & Folsom, A. R. (2009, July). Incidence of atrial fibrillation in whites and African-Americans: The atherosclerosis risk in communities (ARIC) study. American heart journal. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2720573/
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.