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New defibrillator improves potential complications

January 7, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
Surgeons give pacemakers to patients in order to prevent heart problems like sudden cardiac arrest. But that device, designed to save lives, can sometimes cause life-threatening side effects. Now a new type of shock therapy could be the answer.

In the U.S., sudden cardiac arrest kills more than 325,000 people each year. Defibrillators implanted in high-risk patients can save lives. But these devices and their wires have their own inherent risk: they can cause life-threatening infections.

Researchers have been a testing a new wireless system for more than a year now, and the latest results look promising.

Merle Honey is being released from the hospital. He's one of the first people in the U.S. to have a new defibrillator implanted in his chest. He suffers from a dangerously fast heartbeat.

A traditional implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) was implanted a few years ago.

"When you get a shock, it just comes out of nowhere," said Honey.

His original defibrillator was put in the left side of his chest. A wire was snaked into one of the veins under his collarbone and into his heart. The wire caused a life-threatening infection and had to be removed.

"This new defibrillator is put underneath the skin, lower down in the chest and has a wire that goes just outside the chest wall and up the sternum," said cardiologist Dr. Jordan Prutkin.

It eliminates or reduces the chance of complications from the traditional wire, such as infection or puncturing the lung or the heart.

"There's nothing that's going into any of the blood vessels, and nothing that's going into the heart itself," said Prutkin.

The new device, called a subcutaneous ICD (S-ICD) keeps track of the heart; a normal heart beats 50 to 90 times a minute. If Honey's heart beats between 180 and 220, it tries to determine if the situation is life-threatening and will shock him.

"He's going to feel it," said Prutkin. "It's going to feel like getting kicked in the chest."

After a little heart-to-heart with his doctor, Honey is heading home without any worries or wires.

This new "shock therapy" is not for everyone. Unlike traditional ICDs, there's no pacing capabilities. Which means that if the heart starts to beat too slowly, it cannot bring it back up to speed.