Heart surgeons perform state-of-the-art treatment for atrial fibrillation

Heart surgeons perform state-of-the-art treatment for atrial fibrillation

By Brian Newsome, Senior Public Relations Specialist, Colorado Springs LIVING WELL Magazine

Heart attacks may be the signature disease of cardiac conditions, but there are plenty of other maladies that plague our tickers. One of them, an irregular heartbeat, has emerged as one of the greatest heart problems facing Baby Boomers. The condition affects some three million Americans and can be so debilitating that simple, daily tasks become too exhausting to perform.

Physicians have treated the disease, known as atrial fibrillation, through a combination of medication and surgical procedures, but the most common therapies have often proven ineffective for the sickest patients.

A pair of physicians at Memorial Health System are hoping to change that. Memorial heart surgeon Dr. Chris Wehr, and Pikes Peak Cardiology electrophysiologist Dr. Brad Mikaelian recently became the first surgeons in Colorado to perform what is known as a hybrid ablation. The successful surgery has put 52-year old Chris Hempel on a road of recovery that should eventually get him off of disability and back to work as a school-bus mechanic.

Usually, there are three ways to attack an atrial afibrillation. The first line of defense is medication. When medication fails, patients typically undergo a catheter ablation, in which an electrophysiologist essentially runs a catheter inside the heart and burns or freezes tissue. This intention scarring, strange as it may sound to the average person, can restore normal heart rhythm. In even rarer cases, a heart surgeon may perform an ablation to the outside of the heart.

Some patients undergo all of the above, and even then the condition continues. That’s where Wehr and Mikaelian hope their uncommon team approach will change the game for Colorado.

With the hybrid ablation, the two physicians essentially perform both the catheter ablation and external ablation in the same surgery. In doing so, they are able to exchange critical information that ensures the problem is corrected once and for all.

“Beyond simply saving him (Hempel) multiple procedures, there is the benefit of information that Dr. Wehr can provide from a surgical aspect and the electrical information I can provide from a catheter aspect,” says Mikaelian on the day of surgery, Dec. 20. “Using that information together, we can get better results than either of us could do alone.”

For Wehr, “This is really state-of-the-art for the treatment of atrial fibrillation.”

Although the two ablation procedures are not unusual when performed individually, most health systems don’t have two physicians trained in them who are able or willing to do them at the same time.

On Dec. 20, as the patient slept soundly under anesthesia, this teamwork was observed firsthand. Wehr delicately moved his instruments across the surface of the beating heart, which was illuminated on giant flat-screen monitors by a scope. Section by section, he methodically burned parts of the surface while the electrical activity was monitored. When he was finished, Mikaelian, with his own area of expertise, was able to ascertain that no area was missed.

Such attention to detail is critical, and is one of the strongest benefits of this approach, because even a tiny area that is overlooked can prevent the problem from going away.

Not everyone, of course, is a candidate for this procedure. Many people with atrial fibrillation suffer few, if any symptoms from the disease. For others, the symptoms may not significantly impact their lives enough to justify undergoing surgery. But for people like Hempel, it can mean being able to walk up stairs and hold down a job rather than be confined to a chair or sofa each day.