Low-radiation technique offering safer way to treat irregular heartbeat in Jacksonville
By Charlie Patton, Florida Times-Union
For Margaret Mocko, 74, the fact that the treatment she would be undergoing at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in late September for atrial fibrillation was a relatively new technique involving minimal exposure to radiation wasn’t her main concern.
The main concern for Mocko, who lives in Lake Asbury, was that afib, a condition in which the heart sometimes beats very rapidly — more than 300 beats per minute — was affecting her active lifestyle.
“You don’t get to be 74 years old and not be exposed to radiation,” she said.
So while she said she appreciated the advantages of a low-radiation procedure, her primary concern was to get the afib fixed.
On the other hand, Jacksonville resident Tiffany Watkins, now 35, was very worried about radiation when she was treated at St. Vincent’s for afib.
That’s because there’s a three-generation history of breast cancer in her family and her grandmother had four bouts of it.
“I’m very health conscious,” she said. “I run and I watch what I eat. I try to do what I can.”
Watkins began experiencing symptoms of atrial fibrillation in the summer of 2010.
She would feel faint, become very light-headed and her heart would pound as if it was going to burst out of her chest.
She underwent two procedures, in October 2010 and March 2011, and got the results she was hoping for. “I’m cured,” she said.
Mocko said she began experiencing afib about 10 years ago when it “almost ruined my trip to Charleston.
“My heart flutters and pounds real hard,” she said. “It feels like it’s going to jump out of my chest.”
Treating afib is important, said Saumil Oza, a cardiac electrophysiologist with Diagnostic Cardiology Associates.
“It leads to stroke, heart disease, hospitalization,” he said. “It’s a huge cost-driver.”
Oza, who performed a catheter ablation on Mocko to fix her afib, said he learned the low-radiation technique in Chicago, the first place in the United States where the technique, originally developed in France, was used.
“We always have to be careful of the radiation levels we expose our patients to before, during and after surgery whether they’ve been exposed to high levels of radiation prior to the procedure or not,” he said.
“The techniques we’re using not only decrease radiation, but also increase the quality of care during the procedure because we’re working with a 3-D image of the heart instead of the traditional 2-D image.”
Oza said that five years ago, the techniques he used could include up to two CT scans and 60 minutes of fluoroscopy to position catheters. That equated to a roughly .01 percent increase in lifetime risk of cancer.
The CARTO 3 System eliminates the CT scans and decreases the time of fluoroscopy to less than five minutes. Instead Oza uses ultrasound and 3D imaging to map a patient’s heart.
After inserting a catheter into a vein in Mocko’s leg, Oza threaded it into her heart.
Then he used the catheter to electrically cauterize the surface of the veins, creating a sort of insulation that would restore her heartbeat to a normal pattern.
“This procedure has been a blessing for a lot of patients,” Oza said.
Mocko wasn’t an easy patient. For one thing, her heart had three veins rather than the normal four. For another, her afib proved rather stubborn. Periodically throughout the procedure the erratic heartbeat would resume.
“Very abnormal,” Oza said. “But you just keep going until you get it.”
Eventually he got it.
“Hallelujah,” Oza said when his screen showed Mocko’s heartbeat was slow and steady.
In a recent interview, Mocko said she questioned the effectiveness of the procedure for a while as periodic bouts of afib returned.
But she’s been free of the irregular heartbeat in recent days.
“I’m doing very well,” Mocko said.