Hospital installs new defibrillator

Last week, UPMC Altoona became the first hospital between Pittsburgh and Hershey to perform a new procedure for patients at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

On July 31, the recently developed defibrillator device was implanted in a patient.

The device sits under the skin and does not need the lead that is attached to the heart, like other devices, so it lowers a number of risks for the patient, said Dr. Haitham Hreibe, who performed the surgery.

Hreibe, of Blair Medical Associates-Cardiology, said 40 percent of patients who need implanted defibrillators are eligible for the surgery, because they do not need the pacemaker functions of the current standard devices.

Hreibe said the older devices are implanted near the shoulder and have a long lead that attaches to the wall of the heart itself. These wires can become infected and can detach from the heart, causing damage, among other complications.

The new devices eliminate those concerns, he said.

“This is a step in the right direction in terms of removing that weak link from the equation so that the procedure becomes safer, both on the short term and the long term, for the patient,” Hreibe said.

The new defibrillator reads electrical impulses from the heart at three sensor points: on the side of the ribcage, where the device is implanted, at the base of the sternum, where one electrode is placed and at the top of the chest, where the final electrode is implanted. The sensors then compare those readings to “normal” results and distribute needed shocks when necessary.

A local 34-year-old man received the area’s first surgery for the new device. The patient, who wished to remain anonymous, said he discovered he had congestive heart failure and was at risk for sudden cardiac arrest after experiencing chest pains and difficulty breathing.

He said he had been sick for several months in a row during the past year, from about Thanksgiving to January, and doctors said those symptoms were caused by his heart disease.

Hreibe said that sudden cardiac arrest is different from what most people might associate with having a heart attack. Patients with this type of disease don’t usually experience a prolonged heart attack, but are more likely to just “drop over,” he said.

The patient said recovery from the surgery was relatively easy, and he didn’t miss any work or experience significant pain.

“I didn’t even miss a day of work,” he said. “I have a 1-year-old son, and the night I got home, I was able to hold him and not have to worry too much about (jostling) the device.”

Hreibe said there are some necessary qualifications for the defibrillator. They look for a specific pattern of electrical impulses before performing the surgery and measure signal quality. A patient who needs a pacemaker and a defibrillator is also ineligible, Hreibe said.

There will be some upkeep for the machines, Hreibe said, but it will be less than what would be necessary for the older devices. A pacemaker’s lead needs to be replaced every 10 to 15 years, and for a younger patient that can equal a number of surgeries throughout his or her life.

Hreibe’s patient said he will need additional procedures to put new batteries in his defibrillator, but the surgeries will be relatively quick, outpatient procedures.

“Being a young person myself, I’d say this particular device is a very good device to get,” the patient said.

Hreibe said it’s important that technologies continue to expand to make life-saving procedures like this one more accessible and easy for patients.

There’s a lot at stake, he said, so doctors and researchers should continue to help the health care industry evolve and grow.

“We’re not talking about a cough or a heart palpitation or a headache,” Hreibe said. “We’re talking about death. That’s the ultimate thing that we do: save lives.”

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7535.