Magnets Guide Hearts Back Into Rhythm

FRESNO, Calif. David Swigers' plans for retirement? Travel. But his heart problems got in the way. One episode happened mid-flight.

"I suddenly passed out and went into A-Fib, and the flight attendant thought I was dying," Swigers told Ivanhoe.

Swigers wasn't dying. He has atrial fibrillation. The upper chambers of his heart beat irregularly. It makes him tired and out of breath. At one point, Swigers had episodes every two weeks, which lasted up to three days.

"It's like you've run a race and you're always feeling that feeling," he explained. "I cancelled travel plans because it was just going to interfere, and I didn't feel like I could trod through an airport, carry bags."

Medication wasn't working, so his doctor recommended catheter ablation.

Cardiologists thread a catheter from the groin to the heart and zap the abnormal heart tissue with radiofrequency energy. Studies show its 60 to 80 percent effective.

"I use the word 'cure' with caution because it actually provides control of the arrhythmia over time," Kalyanam Shivkumar, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center in Los Angeles, Calif., told Ivanhoe.

Dr. Shivkumar uses a new piece of machinery. Instead of guiding the catheter to the heart by hand, two large magnets do the job.

"It catches hold of the very tip of the catheter, so it gives a very high degree of precision and control," Dr. Shivkumar explained.

From another room, cardiologists map out the heart in 3-D and use a joystick to guide the catheter to the exact problem spots.

This technology is able to get into some nooks and corners of the heart, which is harder to do by just hand manipulation," Dr. Shivkumar said.

Doctors say it reduces radiation exposure and increases control, but they're still collecting data to see if it works better than the traditional approach long-term.

A couple of months after the ablation, Swigers has had one heart episode.

"Which is kind of a record for me over the last few years," he said.

He's hoping it's a record that lasts so he can get back into the groove of retirement.

Dr. Shivkumar says between 25 and 50 percent of patients require a second procedure for atrial fibrillation but hopes to reduce those numbers with the new magnet-based technique.

Kalyanam Shivkumar, MD
UCLA Cardiac Arrhythmia Center
(310) 206-6433

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