Doctors Willfully Induce Heart Attacks

June 19, 2001 -- Why would anyone ask their cardiologist to give them a heart attack? It's not as unlikely as you might think.

Consuelo Moore could barely walk up a flight of stairs. At 71, she suffered from an enlarged heart. Moore did not want open-heart surgery and weeks of recovery, so she signed up for an unorthodox procedure that could get her in and out of the hospital in just a couple of days.

All she had to do was undergo a heart attack.

Moore's condition is known as obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. It refers to a thickening of the ventricular muscles in the heart that results in an obstruction of blood flow. Until recently, the only forms of treatment that existed were symptom-reducing medication and open-heart surgery.

However, an alternative, non-invasive approach is gaining popularity. In a procedure called septal ablation, doctors inject pure alcohol into an artery leading directly to the enlarged area of the heart. The alcohol immediately starts killing cells, triggering a therapeutic heart attack. The overgrown ventricular muscle then begins to scar and shrink, allowing more blood to flow.

The technique, developed in Europe, has been used on more than 600 patients in the United States. Preliminary results over the last five years suggest that controlled heart attacks are as safe and effective as open-heart surgery.

'A Brick on My Chest'

Moore, who was awake for the entire procedure, watched as doctors located the correct artery and injected the alcohol. She then waited for the heart attack to begin.

When Baylor Heart Clinic Director Dr. William Spencer, supervising the procedure, asked her if she felt the oncoming heart attack, she responded, "It's like a brick on my chest."

After five minutes, doctors measured the pressure in Moore's heart to see if her blood was flowing more freely. The procedure was a success.

Two years later, Moore enjoys an active, healthy lifestyle. "I never thought I would be this energetic again," she says. "It's like I'm 40 years old again."

Dr. Valentin Fuster, president of the American Heart Association, is optimistic about the future of septal ablation. "I think this technique is going to be used much more frequently in the years to come," he says.

Some doctors criticize such enthusiasm as premature, arguing the long-term effects of the procedure are still unknown.

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