Sentara studies heart attack warning device

Published 8:28 pm Saturday, February 12, 2011

More than a million people each year have heart attacks, and more than 400,000 of them die as a result.

But what if some of those people could arrive at the hospital in the early stages of their attack?

“The first few minutes of a heart attack are most dangerous, and every minute lost means more damage to the heart muscle,” said Allen Ciuffo, M.D. and principal investigator at Sentara Cardiovascular Research Institute. “The hope is for them to get a warning even before the symptoms occur.”

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Many people suffering a heart attack wait three hours before going to the hospital because they don’t recognize their symptoms, Ciuffo said.

However, a device called the AngelMed Guardian, currently being tested at 35 of the leading heart centers across the country, may help patients recognize early heart attack symptoms.

Sentara Cardiovascular Research Institute is one of the centers conducting a clinical trial to test the safety and effectiveness of the device.

The AngelMed Guardian acts as a portable electrocardiogram, Ciuffo said. It works by reading the electric signals that come from the heart.

“If this alerted us, then you wouldn’t have to wait until the patient figures it out,” he said. “The faster they get to the hospital, the better they do.”

Certain effects of the heart attack can be reversed in many people if they arrive for treatment earlier, Ciuffo said.

Many people having a heart attack believe they are just suffering from a headache or from the symptoms of acid reflux. They stay home until it is too late.

“By the time they present, the horse is out of the barn, and the barn door is closed,” he said.

Ciuffo said that within just a few hours of having a heart attack, one-third to two-thirds of the heart muscle could die. The dead muscle cannot be recovered. Even if patients do live through this, they have severe damage.

Fifty percent of heart attack deaths occur within the first hour or before the patient arrives at the hospital. The new device can let people know immediately if they are suffering the symptoms of a heart attack.

Ciuffo said that the device has shortened the time of patients entering the hospital from three hours to 20 minutes in other countries.

“It goes in exactly like a pacemaker,” Ciuffo said. “It doesn’t pace; it just listens to the heart.”

When the heart is acting irregularly, the device will buzz and vibrate inside the chest. It also indicates whether the incident is a major alarm.

Sentara has put in 16 devices so far, but because they are in the early stages of the research they are unable to comment on the effectiveness of the device in their patients. The device has been approved in other countries, but it will take several years of studying the device before it is approved in the United States.

“Having this device will get patients to us as soon as possible to get them the best possible outcome,” he said. “Any delay can be very serious.”

“Time is muscle,” he added.