Life preserver for the heart

January 2, 2009 4:04:11 PM PST
Sudden cardiac arrest claims the lives of more than 300-thousand Americans every year. Ninety-five-percent die within minutes, before ever reaching a hospital. Rapid treatment with a defibrillator can be a lifesaver, but there's not always one within reach.

Now, wearing a special vest could be the protection failing hearts need.

The Lifevest is the first wearable defibrillator. It monitors a patient's heart continuously, and delivers defibrillation if a life-threatening heart rhythm is detected. The device is made up of two components: an electrode belt and garment that surrounds the patient's chest, and a monitor the patient wears around their waist or from a shoulder strap.

If the Lifevest identifies a treatable arrhythmia, it sounds an alarm. If the patient doesn't respond to the alarm, the device goes through messages and voice prompts that grow in intensity. If the patient is still unresponsive, a defibrillation shock is delivered. Up to four shocks can be delivered during an episode. The entire process, from detecting an arrhythmia to delivering a defibrillation shock, usually occurs in less than a minute.

Thomas Benton survived two heart attacks and lung cancer, but this year he thought his time had finally run out.

"I was looking at the end of my life. It was over," he said.

His heart was failing.

"He had been hospitalized at least two or three times in the last few months because of worsening congestive heart failure," said Dr. Debbie Rinde-Hoffman, medical director of the cardiac transplant program at Tampa General Hospital.

While Benton waited for a heart transplant, his doctor prescribed this vest. It's a wearable defibrillator designed to shock the heart during a sudden cardiac arrest. Within the first 24-hours of wearing it, it went off.

"I didn't feel it go off. It sounds a siren," he said. "Then it tells everyone to get back, it's going to go off. I didn't even feel the shock. I woke up to six or seven nurses gathered around the bed, and the external defibrillator had gone off and saved my life."

Benton's wife recalls the moments after it happened.

"He said the vest went off. At first it didn't register. 'What does that mean, the vest went off?' Then it finally did. 'Oh, he was dead ? he's alive!'" she said.

"The vest did what it was programmed to do. he went into a potentially deadly rhythm disturbance and the vest shocked him and saved his life," Rinde-Hoffman said.

More than a month later, Benton is recovering from a successful heart transplant and celebrating a birthday he didn't think he'd have.

The wearable defibrillator is worn at home and covered by Medicare and most insurance companies for patients with a variety of cardiac problems. It is a less expensive option than an implantable heart device.

The Lifevest can also be connected to a telephone modem so heart-monitoring data can be sent to physicians. it is prescribed as a temporary solution for patients with certain heart problems.

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