Ancient Principle Fuels Modern Heart Device

Kim Zeoli suffered her first heart attack shortly after turning 50 in 1991 and was hospitalized several times during the next 17 years -- including a quadruple bypass after a heart attack just a few months after her first -- to deal with various heart ailments that arose.

In the years since, Zeoli has had stents inserted to facilitate blood flow after hospital visits for heart problems, steps that relieved her problems for a time. But in recent months, she found she was having difficulties again.

"All of a sudden a year ago, starting in January, December, I started getting worse," Zeoli said.

Her doctors told her that she had congestive heart failure and that she was too high a risk and that surgery was not an option.

But Zeoli was being cared for at St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Boston, which was planning to participate in a trial for a new heart device.

Recently, ABC News affiliate WCVB reported that Zeoli became the first patient at the hospital to be treated with the new apparatus, which operates on a similar principle to technologies used to irrigate the Third World.

Zeoli, whose heart was running at 35 percent of capacity, has had much of her heart function restored since then.

"I've already started noticing the difference in my health as far as being able to exert myself more and not being fatigued," said Zeoli. "They said it would take six months, but I'm starting to feel it now."

Zeoli is among the patients who were involved in a trial of a heart-assistance device known as Impella, which helps double the flow of blood from the heart to the body and can be inserted without major surgery.

The device is typically used during medical procedures that might require physicians to restrict blood flow in patients who already have reduced levels of it. In Zeoli's case, the device was used to maintain her blood pressure so that doctors could insert a stent to promote blood flow.

Current recommendations say the device should be removed within six hours after treatments.

The Impella device has been in use in Europe for several years, but the pharmaceutical company ABIOMED, along with cardiologist Dr. William O'Neill of the University of Miami, is hoping to bring it to the United States to help patients in need of heart operations.

"It's going to be superior to other kinds of support," said O'Neill. "This device itself is better at taking blood out of the heart and pushing it forward as the heart naturally would."

The Impella is threaded through the widest artery in the leg, known as the femoral artery. This artery gives access through the heart valve into the left ventricle -- the part of the heart responsible for pumping blood throughout the body.

Once the catheter of the Impella has been inserted, a needle, which looks much like a mosquito tongue, curls around and a small screw inside the device begins churning blood, helping to propel the blood out of the left ventricle and push it through the body.

The churning component is known as Archimedes' screw, after the ancient Syracusian inventor who used it to bring water from a deep well, and is a technique that may even have been around before the third century B.C. It is commonly used in irrigation, as it can help water to flow uphill.

The Impella can pump roughly 2 to 2.5 liters of blood from the heart in a minute.

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