Angie Fairfield gets device to plug hole in heart 2012.04.11

Written by David Green. Posted in Feature Stories

angie.fairfieldBy DAVID GREEN

It was probably the oddest birthday gift that Angie Fairfield ever received. It was probably the best birthday gift ever, too.

The package she opened on the operating table of the University of Toledo Medical Center mended her broken heart and gave her a new lease on life.

“I didn’t even know I had a heart problem—until I had my first mini-stroke,” said the Fayette resident.

Angie remembers that day well. Jan. 9, 2012. She had a headache, but that wasn’t so unusual since she suffers from migraines. This one, however, wouldn’t go away, despite taking her migraine medication. By the time she reached the emergency room, there was a numbness down the left side of her body.

A month later, to the day, her second mini-stroke struck. She was at work at Fayette’s Circle K when it happened. It got to the point where she couldn’t walk or talk and off she went again to the hospital.

“By the time I got there, my left eye was looking left,” she said.

An EKG showed there was an apparent hole in a chamber of her heart. An esophageal EKG showed what was really going on: It wasn’t merely a hole—her heart was tearing.

“That sounds like a horror movie,” Angie says. “They said I was probably born with a small hole in my heart that got bigger.”

A hole in the heart—atrial septal defect or ASD—is generally repaired with a patch through a catheter-based approach. Rather than opening the chest, the heart is reached through a catheter that passes through a vein in the leg.

After a series of tests, Angie had her surgery date set with Dr. Ehab Eltahawy at UT Medical Center’s cardiac department.

Dr. Eltahawy determined that a patch wasn’t going to do the job. The hole was about the size of a nickel, but the tearing was worsening.

He made the decision to give the Helex Septal Occluder a try. The device is manufactured by W. L. Gore & Associates—a company made famous by its Gore-Tex fabric, but also internationally known for its medical products.

The Helex has patched many hearts since it was approved for use in 2006, but Angie was told she would be only the second person in the country to have the Helex repair a tear.

The Helex comes wrapped in a long thin box and it was given to Angie for unwrapping. After all, it was almost her birthday.

“I got to open the box,” she said. “That was my birthday present. They didn’t put a ribbon around it, but they did give me a cupcake.”

The Helex is a permanent heart implant that consists of a small wire frame covered with a thin membrane. The device is pushed through a catheter, properly positioned, then released. Placement is guided by two images. An X-ray image shows the location of the metal frame; an ultrasound image shows the heart structure and the blood flow.

Angie watched it all while lying on the table.

The small fabric-covered hoops keep the blood where it belongs, and eventually the heart tissue grows around the edges and seals the device in place.

The procedure takes less than a couple of hours and the patient is out of the hospital and back to normal life anywhere from two days to a week.

The Helex doesn’t work for everyone, but so far Angie is doing well. She’s had the first of her monthly check-ups and everything looks good.

She undergoes a “bubble study” in which bubbles of a saline solution are observed passing through the heart to look for leaks between the chambers.

Her only problem is a lack of insurance to cover the cost of the follow-up visits.

“I feel great and my blood pressure is great,” said the 42-year-old. “I’m back to my normal 100 miles per hour.”

She hasn’t had a migraine since her surgery, either, and she’s hoping they’re gone for good. Doctors still aren’t sure if there might be a relationship between blood pressure and migraines.

“There is a good possibility of a connection,” she said.”

She’s experienced migraines since she was a teen-ager and blood pressure problems have accompanied them.

Angie is taking her physical condition in stride, and with her usual sense of humor. For example, those nickel-titanium metal frames of the Helex? 

“That just increases my ‘cool factor,’” Angie said.

No one else she knows is walking around with that special nitinol alloy in their heart.

“I’m on a roll,” she said, referring to three years of cancer-free living.

So far, she’s staying on top of her bout with brain cancer.

“I’m a tough person to keep down,” she says.

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