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Feb 18, 2011 2:49 AM by Dr. Anya Winslow

Shocking the heart into a normal rhythm

"The LifeVest essentially did what its name implies. It saved my life," says Colorado Springs patient and resident Walter Aufderheide.

Aufderheide recalls the symptoms that sent him to the doctor's office - restless, sleepless nights in late October of 2010. Seems harmless, but for Aufderheide, his heart could not even rest at night.

After his cardiologist, Dr. Sunil Nath, ran the proper tests he determined that Aufderheide suffered from idiopathic cardiomyopathy. A condition where the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick or rigid and can no longer pump blood efficiently. Nath concluded that his patient may be at risk from suffering Sudden Cardiac Arrest, which many times results in death.

The American Heart Association says that approximately 300,000* people die each year when they experience Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Only 5% of those people survive the event. When it manifests, it is unpredictable and there are not many preventative measures that doctors can use to protect patients before it happens.

In recent years, a wearable device became available called the LifeVest. One of the risks that many patients endure after they are diagnosed with certain heart conditions is that they may need to receive an implantable device to provide an electric shock to their heart to bring it back to a normal rhythm. That process, in some cases, may take up to three months. Meanwhile, they are at risk of suffering a deadly Sudden Cardiac Arrest.

"We asked him to wear a LifeVest and then after wearing it for a week or two, he started having episodes where he got very light-headed and dizzy and was almost passing out," says Nath.

The LifeVest is a medical device that a patient wears around their torso and would provide a shock to the heart if the heart experiences an abnormal rhythm. It consists of three major components: the vest itself; the electrodes that monitor and deliver the shock when needed; as well as the power source that also records the hearts rhythm.

"It gives 24/7 access to actual hardcore, tangible data for your cardiologist to see," says Aufderheide. "They get an actual EKG. You may have an event like I did, where a few seconds of dizziness and what seems kind of insignificant to me, turns out to be very significant and very dangerous after the cardiologist sees the data."

"If he wasn't wearing [the vest], we wouldn't have picked this up and he would have been at very high risk of going into [cardiac arrest] and not coming out of it and, and dying suddenly," says Nath.

As for using the device, it is quite simple. In fact, it talks directly to the patient. It sounds and alarm when it senses an abnormal heart rhythm. Depending on whether or not the patient is conscious and can respond to the prompt, it will deliver a charge. If a charge needs to be delivered, a gel will squirt out from the pads before it is delivered. The extruded gel ensures that the patient will not get burned and that the charge will effectively be transmitted through the skin and to the heart.

Aufderheide was lucky enough that he did not require a shock from the device. Instead, his doctors were able to isolate one of the incidents that he experienced while he was wearing the vest and determined that he needed to receive an implantable defibrillator.

It "made a black and white decision out of a pretty gray area where I needed a defibrillator and that's what we were wondering about all along: should we put in a defibrillator or not? You don't want to do something to someone that doesn't need it," says Aufderheide.


Click here to learn more about the LifeVest.

The company says that if you are identified as an at risk patient, most insurance companies cover varying amounts of the cost; and to date, 35,000 patients have worn the device with a 98% success rate.

*Numbers are from 2010 and are provided by the American Heart Association.

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