Doctors at Drexel University College of Medicine are testing an early warning system designed to detect heart troubles before they become a big problem.
The device is attached to the heart and sewn into the chest. When electrical signals misfire, the implant vibrates. Cardiologist John Fontaine says it’s like those buzzers you get when you’re waiting for a table at a busy restaurant.
“Then the external device will have two indicators on it, a red light and a yellow light. The red light means you are having a heart attack, it vibrates and it flashes also,” Fontaine said.
About 30 percent of people who have a heart attack don’t recognize the signs, Fontaine said. The implant and “beeper” are called the AngelMed Guardian System. It’s for high-risk patients and can push them to seek appropriate treatment, at the right time.
Researchers are gathering evidence on the safety of the device and studying its effectiveness. The Philadelphia arm of the study includes just one patient so far.
Fontaine says that patient had two heart attacks and lots of trips to the emergency room before he got the implant.
“He has fights with his family because they think he’s having a heart attack, he doesn’t think he’s having a heart attack, nobody knows what’s going on,” Fontaine said.
Since the surgery, Fontaine says the “family can be confident he’s OK when he says he’s OK.”
Why seek a high-tech solution? Why not just better educate patients on the signs to look for?
Fontaine said some patients never present with the crushing chest pressure or radiating arm classically linked to heart attack.
Faced with a tired feeling or indigestion, some patients “want to go to sleep, or take Tums, and see how they feel tomorrow,” Fontaine said.
One satisified customer
Pittsburgh-area resident Bonnie Boehm had a heart attack at age 39 and another nine years later. She’s a nurse but didn’t know her atypical symptoms — jaw pain, back pain and heart burn — were signs of a true cardiac event.
She has the implant now.
“I have two teenage children and they need their mom around I wasn’t about to take the risk of perishing before they are totally grown,” she said.
Every surgery has risks, but Boehm said her goal is to avoid further heart damage that could shorten her life.
“I don’t think people realize this could save your life or your heart,” she said.
So, far Boehm’s pager has never gone off.
“You don’t even know it’s there. There’s a little bump in my chest, the scar’s only 2 inches long,” she said. “I have peace of mind that every day I’m going to wake up and be fine.”