Experts Say Laser Could Make Heart Procedure More Accurate
Sarah Mayberry, M.P.H.
It sounds like a super hero power -- being able to see through blood. But doctors say it's possible, and it's already helping patients suffering from a common heart problem.
Patricia Stroker of Clinton Township, Mich., has suffered from an abnormal heart rhythm for three and a half years.
"It terrified me. I used to come in and tell her, 'I'm afraid to go to sleep at night,'" said Stroker. "It would wake me up from sleep. It would get me when I was eating dinner. Basically any time of the day or night, and it wasn't anything that you could foresee."
The grandmother of two was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Experts said it's the most common heart rhythm problem, affecting more than two million Americans.
"Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm that starts in the top part of the heart. The top part of the heart goes about 350 to 500 beats a minute. It's a very irregular rhythm," said Dr. Ilana Kutinsky, an electrophysiologist at Beaumont Hospital.
According to the American Heart Association, about 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.
"Because the top part of the heart goes so rapidly, it doesn't squeeze effectively, and when it doesn't squeeze effectively, blood can clot and then clots can fleck off and cause a stroke," said Kutinsky.
"I would get lightheaded and dizzy along with it, so I think that scared me more than the rapid heartbeat," said Stroker.
When medicine could no longer control Stroker's symptoms, Kutinsky suggested a procedure to destroy the heart tissue that was causing her problems. Generally, doctors perform this procedure without being able to actually see the heart.
"We use indirect measures of where the heart is. So we'll do a CT scan, or we'll use X-rays, or we use 3-dimensional mapping, but we can't actually see the tissue of the heart," said Kutinsky.
Beaumont offered a different option. The hospital is part of a national clinical trial testing a device called the Cardiofocus Cardiac Laser Ablation system. It's made up of a thin tube with a camera, a balloon, and a rotating laser. It gives doctors a "super power" of sorts.
"It is actually an infrared light that allows us to see through blood," said Kutinsky.
Doctors carefully thread the laser through a vein up to the heart and zap the tissue causing the irregular rhythm.
"It's an incredible advance as far as I'm concerned. I think that is has helped immensely," said Kutinsky. "To actually visualize what I'm doing has made a huge difference. To be able to see through blood is pretty remarkable."
Stroker was the first person in Michigan to be treated with the device. She said she's happy she had access to the latest high-tech advance.
"It makes you feel wonderful that they can see what they're doing, rather than taking a stab in the dark," said Stroker.
A week after the procedure --
"I feel great. I've had a couple little flip flops, which apparently are very normal, but I haven't had any a-fib episodes, and I feel good," said Stroker.
Kutinsky said the traditional procedure has a success rate of about 50 percent on the first attempt, which means many patients need to have a second procedure. She said this laser device could improve that initial success rate. Beaumont plans to enroll more patients in the clinical trial in the months to come.