Frozen balloons treat 'broken' hearts

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on June 28, 2011 at 10:22 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jun 29 at 5:43 PM

An episode of atrial fibrillation for 38-year-old Chip Brownlee is a lot like drinking 20 cups of coffee  in one sitting.

"Feels like your heart is stopping for a second or two, and then beats very quickly to kind of catch up," he explained. "It's just not in the regular rhythm, and so you'll feel maybe short of breath, light-headed, maybe dizzy."

Atrial fibrillation happens when the upper chambers of the heart don't pump effectively, causing an abnormal heart rhythm. The causes are often unknown, though the condition affects more than two million Americans.

It can be both uncomfortable and dangerous.

"If left unchecked, it can lead to heart failure, or worse — it can lead to stroke," said Baylor Dallas electrophysiologist Dr. Robert Kowal. "Atrial fibrillation is one of the largest causes of stroke in the country."

Dr. Kowal says medication and current treatments often don't work well. Baylor's Heart Hospital is now doing a new procedure called cryo-ablation.

In an operating room, a frozen balloon is strung into the heart via a catheter. The cold energy from the balloon freezes abnormal heart cells.

Doctors call it a medical breakthrough, with fewer complications and less discomfort for patients.

"The success rates typically run about 70 percent or a little higher," Dr. Kowal said.

Before cryo-ablation, Chip Brownlee's heart would have to be shocked into a normal rhythm.

"No one wants to live like that," he said.

After the procedure, Chip Brownlee's heart only races for a good reason — like when he sees his young son.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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