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Stephen Summerill was in the middle of a painting job last week when his pacemaker and internal defibrillator sent a life-saving jolt to his pounding heart.
The Idaho contractor tidied things up and headed for his truck, expecting to drive himself to a hospital in Blackfoot, but was shocked again. In the ambulance and emergency room, he endured five more disabling shocks before doctors were able to stabilize him with drugs.
The defibrillator did its job, keeping Summerill alive long enough to be transported to Intermountain Medical Center (IMC) in Murray. Cardiologists there performed a combination of procedures they say spared the 69-year-old from needing a heart transplant.
The seven-hour surgery also reduces Summerill's risk for future arrhythmias and painful defibrillator shocks.
"It's like if you grab a light switch. Take that jolt and make it 20 times harder," Summerill said at a press conference on Wednesday, describing the pain he's all too happy to avoid. "It lifted my body off the table in the ER."
The technology that doctors used, magnetic-guided catheter ablation, has been available at IMC for two years, said heart rhythm specialist Peter Weiss.
Comprised of two massive magnetic pods and computers that create detailed 3D images of the heart, the Stereotaxis Magnetic Navigation System allows doctors to gently thread a flexible tube through the patient's groin and into the heart where they "cauterize bits of unhealthy heart muscle" that are causing the irregular heart beats, said Weiss.
It's more precise than hand-guided catheters, and because it's flexible, gentler on the heart. It also exposes patients to less radiation, Weiss said.
But after 27 years of heart problems, including a heart attack and five bypass surgeries, Summerill's heart was so scarred and weak, doctors feared he wouldn't survive the procedure.
"Our fears were confirmed when we administered anesthesia and his blood pressure plummeted," said interventional cardiologist James Revenaugh.
Revenaugh was at the ready with a miniature heart pump. Such ventricular assist devices are commonly used to support, or bypass, failing hearts during surgery. At least one model has been used in combination with magnetic-guided catheters.
But the TandemHeart device, which had never before been used in the U.S. with a magnetic catheter, was better suited to Summerill. It pumps more volume, nearly as much as the healthy human heart, said Revenaugh.
Comforted by successful pairings of the technology in Prague, IMC doctors forged ahead.
The magnets didn't interfere with the pump as initially feared and it kept Summerill stable, allowing Weiss to concentrate on this rhythm problems.
Eight hours after surgery Summerill was able to walk. He was discharged in under 48 hours, and on Monday returns to work.
"It's been quite ride," said the father of six adult children. "It's phenomenal what they can do. If it weren't for technology, I would not be sitting here. I'd be gone."