Will Walker was one of Australia’s up and coming professional cyclists before he was diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia known as tachycardia in 2008. In 2006 he became the Elite national champion at the tender young age of 20, as an under 23 rider. Later that year he rode his first Grand Tour the Tour of Spain and followed up with the Giro d’Italia in 2007.
However, during 2007 a cardiac arrhythmia known as ventricular tachycardia was having a profound impact on his health, leaving him unable to compete at the professional level. After his diagnosis, he rode for the UCI ProTour team Fuji-Servetto, but was forced to pull out early on in 2009 after realising that a series of ablations for his condition were not able to correct the arrhythmia. In the years after his retirement Will worked for a number of cycling teams including GreenEDGE before vowing to return for the 2012 season with Australian registered Drapac.
In one of his first races back Will placed 7th at the elite National Championships ahead of the likes of Simon Gerrans, but that same race just one year later would be his downfall, when while in the leading breakaway Will went into very serious condition called Ventricular fibrillation and had to be defibrillated on the side of the road.
“This year has been one of the toughest of my life! After my comeback I felt better than ever and I was starting to get close to my old level like when I raced in Europe in 2007. After the terrible incident at the Nationals in January 2014, I had further testing done. Originally I was thought to have exercise induced tachycardia and that if I refrained from exercise that my life would be completely safe. However with no exercise in the few months following that event my health continued to deteriorate, making every day activities difficult to handle. After seeing Prof Kalman at Melbourne Heart Rhythm, I underwent an MRI and was subsequently diagnosed with arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC).”
Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy (ARVC) is an inherited cardiac disorder, in which the heart muscle cells of the right ventricle (RV) are slowly replaced by fibrous/fatty tissue & are prone to developing an abnormally rapid heart rhythm (arrhythmia) called "Ventricular Tachycardia" (VT).
“Shortly after being diagnosed I had a Cardiac Defibrillator implanted (ICD). This was a huge life changing event at just 29 and a realisation that things were going to be very different from then on! But what was not expected was just what damage had been caused to my heart by my last cycling race. In the middle of the night, just over a month after having the defibrillator implanted, my ICD was discharged. The once exercise induced tachycardia was now with me even at rest. After consultation, medication was changed and increased but it seemed that over the following 5 months I still regularly had short runs of Ventricular tachycardia that were either self terminating or that were terminated by the anti-tachycardia pacing (ATP) from the defibrillator. Further consultation with the specialists at Melbourne Heart Rhythm meant a further ablation was scheduled, however unlike the previous five ablations, this one was going to be both an endocardial ablation and an epicardial ablation meaning the cardiologists had better access to the tissue that was causing the frequent tachycardia.”
Radiofrequency ablation refers to the use of radiofrequency energy delivered through a specialized catheter (wire) to cauterize abnormal tissue causing abnormal heart rhythm circuits. Endocardial ablation refers to performing cauterization on the inside surface of the heart i.e within the blood pool. The vast majority of ablation procedures are performed in this manner. Epicardial ablation refers to applying heat energy to the outside surface of the heart. This is a highly specialized technique that is performed in experienced specialized centers.
“Unfortunately, prior to the upcoming ablation, while walking out the back of my property, I felt my heart begin to beat rapidly. Because of the amount of time I have dealt with these symptoms I knew exactly what it was. I just made it to my back door when my defibrillator went off, and scarily only seconds later I felt my heart being out of rhythm again. By the time I called my brother to drive me to hospital (I had worked it out that the fastest way was by car) my defibrillator discharged again. The whole ordeal was like a terrible nightmare, my body went into an uncontrollable panic and I felt like I was on deaths doorstep. By the time the hospital was able to get me under control by medication, my defibrillator discharged nine times!- known as an ‘electrical storm’.”
The ablation was brought forward and deemed a major success. After numerous attempts to find any tachycardia in the electrophysiology study, and a light stress test completed after, there were hopes for a positive recovery! The months are now passing and my health keeps on improving, I play golf, go for a lot of walks and am really living a safe and happy life. However dealing mentally with all of the events is slightly more challenging, but each day I find the courage to fight and improve. Having been through all of this hardship, and losing my career, it is now my life ambition to be able to make a difference to the lives of those who suffer cardiac arrhythmias.I am personally extremely grateful to the team at Melbourne Heart Rhythm who made such a difference to my life.
Photo: with Simon Gerrans at the 2007 World road Championships in Germany