Health Team

Heart Defibrillators Help Patients With HCM

Posted July 24, 2007 4:01 p.m. EDT
Updated July 24, 2007 7:55 p.m. EDT

— There have been several cases involving young athletes whose hearts suddenly stop beating while playing sports. Many of those cases involve a specific heart condition that puts young people at risk of sudden death. A new study looked at what might help save their lives.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is a genetic disease, which causes the heart wall to thicken. Paul McSweeney, 22, and his mom, Mary, learned he had HCM 11 years ago.

"They said that he should limit his activity which is really tough for an 11-year-old kid and that he could live a normal life, but that there was a risk of sudden death," Mary said.

In hopes of reducing that risk, Paul got an implantable defibrillator, which sends electric shocks to the heart if it starts beating irregularly. One day, the defibrillator started working when Paul took a nap after stressful studying for exams.

"I just abruptly woke up and I wasn't sure what had happened at that point in time," Paul said. "I later went in for a medical check-up and they confirmed the fact that I had been defibrillated."

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows implantable defibrillators can offer hope to many HCM patients.

"We have found that it is now possible to change the natural course of the disease for some patients by preventing sudden cardiac death," said study author Dr. Barry Marion, of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation.

The device may help even if patients have only one risk factor such as sudden death in a close relative, unexplained fainting or massive thickening of the heart wall. Officials said Paul is clearly at risk since the defibrillator had to shock his heart back to normal months before he needed it.

"I really do see this defibrillator and the medical team that installed it in me as really saving my life," Paul said.

He said he hopes the defibrillator will continue to protect him and help others with HCM as well.

The study followed about 500 HCM patients with implantable defibrillators. Over three years, the devices delivered life saving shocks to 103 patients with irregular heartbeats. About 20 percent experienced device complications and one patient died due to a defibrillator malfunction.