Kareem Abdul-Jabbar receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2016 via AP Photo

In early August, StopAfib.org brought their “Get in Rhythm, Stay in Rhythm” conference to the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. For those unfamiliar with AFib, atrial fibrillation is the most common irregular heartbeat. Characterized by heart palpitations, dizziness, and shortness of breath (or no symptoms at all), it increases your stroke risk 500 percent and can lead to heart failure and dementia, as stated on the StopAFib website. 

The three-day conference consisted of experts of this particular heart condition including physicians, patients, and survivors. On the second night of the conference, a special panel was held by StopAfib.org and the No Time to Wait campaign to bring six-time NBA Most Valuable Player and Basketball Hall of Famer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Dallas to discuss Afib with Dr. Andrea Phillips and moderated by Larry Jackson, MD. 

In association with the No Time to Wait campaign and the Bristol Myers Squibb-Pfizer Alliance, I was able to ask the member of the NBA 75 team a few questions about his experience with Afib as well as its impact on African Americans, the importance of health, and his advocacy for multiple causes.

What were the moments/days like leading up to your diagnosis of atrial fibrillation (AFib) (symptoms you suffered, what you may have originally thought it might’ve been, etc.)?

KAJ: A few key moments come to mind. I started experiencing shortness of breath, fatigue, and light-headedness but I dismissed those symptoms because they would come and go. I remember traveling to Europe with my family and I had trouble walking through the airport and keeping up with them as we were walking through the city. That never happened in the past. My body was trying to tell me something was wrong – but I wasn’t listening.

Over time, these symptoms happened more frequently. It wasn’t until I was at a baseball game that I realized I needed medical attention. I couldn’t stand up without feeling light-headed and I thought I was going to collapse. I ended up going to the hospital after the game where I was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, also known as AFib.

That’s why I joined the No Time to Wait campaign alongside BMS and Pfizer to raise awareness about AFib and to encourage people experiencing symptoms to speak with a healthcare professional. Check out NoTimetoWait.com for more information about AFib and its symptoms.

After your diagnosis, what are some of the lifestyle changes you made (physically and/or mentally)? What has your physician also recommended to not just you, but what others can do to live with AFib?

KAJ: When I was first diagnosed, I had a lot to learn. I had heard the term AFib before, but I didn’t know what it was. I’ve since learned it’s the most common type of irregular heartbeat and people with AFib have about a five times greater risk of stroke. Symptoms may include irregular heartbeat, heart racing, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, and light-headedness.

I also learned that following my management plan can help to reduce my risk of AFib-related stroke. I worked with my doctor to create a plan that works for me. I keep myself hydrated, watch what I eat, and monitor my symptoms. Because I work closely with my care team, I can walk, even run a little. I also do strength training. Every person is different though, so patients should work with their healthcare professional to develop a management plan that works best for them.

I know you discussed this with Dr. Jackson and Dr. Phillips explains the importance of consulting your physician to check if you have this condition and how it can change your life especially amongst African Americans.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sets the All Time Scoring Record in 1984 via AP Photo

KAJ: I know firsthand the impact AFib can have on your life and how easy it can be to dismiss potential AFib symptoms. I should have discussed my symptoms with a doctor when I first started experiencing them. Instead, I waited until my symptoms became so bad that I wound up in the hospital.

The fact is that Black Americans have a higher risk for health conditions that put them at greater risk for AFib; however, Black Americans are diagnosed with AFib at lower rates than white Americans despite this higher risk. So, I encourage anyone experiencing symptoms to speak with a healthcare professional, because only they can determine if the symptoms are of AFib or another condition.

AFib is one of the many causes that you’re an advocate for, what are some of the other causes you champion for that you feel people should be aware of (health related or otherwise)?

KAJ: As a writer and activist, I take pride in knowing that I can use my platform to make a difference in the generations to come. While I learned the game of basketball growing up in New York City, it was also fundamental in shaping my world views and I became an activist at a young age. I started writing about racial injustice when I was in high school and have not stopped to this day. At this time in my life, I feel that sharing my thoughts on important societal matters is exactly what I need to be doing. 

On a personal level, I want to help inform people on relevant health information to ensure people can advocate for themselves – especially those in underserved communities. AFib is one of the many causes I speak about because it’s so prevalent – 9.5 million people in the U.S. are projected to have the disease this year. I cannot stress the importance of speaking with your doctor if you experience any of the common symptoms. 

Do you give advice to the current generation of athletes if they seek advice from you? Also, what are some words of wisdom you have for the young people in this changing social climate?

KAJ: Over the years, I have spoken to many athletes, helping them understand that having talent is one thing, but putting in hard work is what will make you stand out. That comes with anything, on and off the court – the effort you put into something is the effort you will put into the world.

The Basketball Hall of Fame inductions happened recently. I know we talk about championships, but what is the feeling of receiving an award off the court whether it’s for your advocacy or your contribution to basketball?

KAJ: It’s very special to be in the Hall of Fame with so many other talented athletes that I played with or had the pleasure of watching from the sidelines. It is always an honor receiving an award, whether it’s for basketball or advocacy work. I am lucky that I could make an impact during my time on and off the court.

Via Bristol Meyers Squibb

For more information on atrial fibrillation or if you’re interested in Kareem’s story with Afib, you can check out the following sites: NoTimeToWait.com and StopAFib.org. You can also subscribe and read Kareem’s Substack.