Laurel Co. woman credits Apple Watch with previously-elusive diagnosis of heart issue

The tiny technology can be helpful in many different situations for monitoring one’s heart health, doctors say.
The tiny technology can be helpful in many different situations for monitoring one’s heart health, doctors say.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 2:28 PM EDT
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LONDON, Ky. (WKYT) - When Karen Combs bought a new Apple Watch last fall, it was not just for the upgrade.

“First day that I could order one,” she said, “I ordered one.”

Combs had seen the advertisements promoting Apple Watch’s electrocardiogram (ECG) capabilities and knew it could prove to be helpful for her.

That’s because, for the past three years, Combs had experienced sporadic episodes of a racing heartbeat.

“I would almost pass out,” Combs said, describing the intensity of the episodes. “That would last for about half an hour, and then I’d just be physically exhausted and pretty much wiped out for the rest of the day.”

There seemed to be, she said, no rhyme or reason for when the episodes would start, or when they would stop. She might be doing laundry or cooking a meal - nothing that should cause her heart to begin racing. Sometimes episodes would be several months apart.

Thankfully, most of the episodes happened when she was at home. She feared them happening while driving. One close call occurred when she was getting ready to get on her motorcycle for a trip.

Her cardiologists had been trying to capture those episodes through repeated ECGs at the doctor’s office and entire months of using a heart monitor at home.

It was only after receiving her new Apple Watch in late September that, in early October, Combs experienced two episodes just days apart. She was able to sit down and use the smartwatch’s ECG app to capture a recording that she could share with her doctors.

A readout of the ECG saved to her phone showed her heart rate peaked at 188 beats per minute.

“She brought it to the office and I was able to tell her, ‘Yes, this is definitely SVT,’” Dr. Yousef Darrat, a cardiologist at CHI Saint Joseph Health, told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

Dr. Darrat used the readout from Combs’ watch to diagnose her with supraventricular tachycardia, a heart arrhythmia that involves a fast or erratic heartbeat. Having a diagnosis allowed doctors to perform a cardiac ablation procedure in January to correct it.

This is not the only time Dr. Darrat says that same ECG feature helped them diagnose a patient. And it likely will not be the last.

“I see a lot for this technology to be used,” Dr. Darrat said. “I think we’re just at the first few steps, we’re just opening the door. I think there’s more to come with further improving this technology for the good of patients.”

Dr. Darrat says the ECG feature has good accuracy and can be a helpful tool for spotting arrhythmias, especially atrial fibrillation, or AFib.

“I’m not going to say it’s the best way to diagnose AFib,” he said, “but it’s a very good way to diagnose AFib, to catch it early on and get the right treatment for it.”

The ECG app on Apple Watch allows users to export a PDF of the ECG readout, so they can save it or share it with a doctor. That means it also has practical applications for telehealth or other situations where patients may not be able to get to a doctor in person easily.

[RELATED | See more of WKYT’s award-winning Bridging the Great Health Divide coverage]

Dr. Darrat’s research has also found that arrhythmias like this - which are more common in women to begin with - can take twice as long to diagnose in women. That is because they are more likely to be underdiagnosed, or to have their symptoms attributed to something else instead.

“With the availability of this technology, we can reach a diagnosis much faster and with a good degree of accuracy,” he said.

Tools like this can be helpful not just to individual patients, but also to the health care system at large, Dr. Darrat said. Quicker and easier diagnoses lower the burden on the system, and, therefore, costs, as well.

Since her procedure in January, Combs says she has not had any more episodes of her heart racing. Without her Apple Watch, she is not sure whether she could say the same.

“I probably would still be going through that process of trying to nail it down through a hospital or a heart monitor,” she said. “I’m just thankful that something as simple as my Apple Watch helped make that diagnosis.”

Now she is back to doing the things she loves - a big relief thanks to a small accessory she wears every day.

And she even has another motorcycle trip planned.