A new level of heart care

Cardiovascular Center's high-tech machine helps doctors diagnose ailments faster and with increased accuracy
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Cardiologist Sheldon Litwin sat in front of a computer, twisting and turning a 3-D digital image of his patient's beating heart. With the click of the mouse, he deleted the cartilage and tissue around the organ and zoomed in on an artery to find just what he was looking for: a tiny, peanut-shaped calcification that was blocking the passageway.

The image was created by the Definition Dual Source Computed Tomography scanner, which may be the fastest scanner in the Intermountain region, taking digital images of a patient's body from head to toe in 15 seconds.

In a short ceremony Wednesday, doctors at University Hospital's Cardiovascular Center unveiled the 128-slice scanner, a "forklift upgrade" compared with the hospital's current 64-slice, said Steve Stevens, chairman of the department of radiology.

"With this machine, we'll be able to take care of patients more efficiently," Stevens said, "especially when we have trauma patients that we can just quickly put through and diagnose."

The $3 million scanner will not only help provide an image faster, but will reduce preparation time for doctors. With other scanners, patients had to take beta blocker drugs, which slowed a person's heart rate so it could be properly scanned. The new scanner rotates three times a second (180 times per minute) and provides an accurate heart image without extensive preparation, said Roland Tietjen, account executive at Siemens Medical Solutions USA Inc., the company that manufactures the scanner.

"It's that window of time that will help doctors fix a heart faster," Tietjen said.

Because of its speed, the scanner, which is equipped with two cameras and X-ray machines (twice as many as previous scanners), will also expose patients to 50 percent less radiation, Stevens said.

A welcome fact to people like Carolyn Larrivee, one of the first patients scanned in the new machine.

Larrivee, the hospital's director of nursing, was skiing last March when she felt a stabbing pain in her chest.

The digital images of her heart helped doctors diagnose her cardiovascular disease.

"I knew that I might have had something even though I was in denial," she said. "But with this machine, I knew that I really did have something wrong."

Because of its detailed images, doctors hope the machine will help them better diagnose other cardiovascular diseases, such as coronary artery disease and pulmonary embolism, said Litwin, a professor of internal medicine at the hospital.

Older scanners detect artery problems when they are 70 percent blocked, Litwin said. The new scanner finds blockages at 30 percent.

"We have 3-D manipulation, so we can look at areas of calcification and examine specific branches of blood vessels," Litwin said. "This means we'll be able to pick things up before the patient has a big heart attack."