Hot-wiring failing hearts

May 5, 2010 3:21:34 PM PDT
If you're one of the 5 million Americans living with heart failure, you know that simply waking up is tiring enough to send you back to bed. Now doctors are testing out a new device for heart failure that's already been successful in lowering blood pressure. The hope: Recharge hearts without any drugs.Chuck Cummings loves to show off his pictures: shots of a young navy man in the prime of his life. He managed to maintain the energy of his military days, until a few years ago when he was diagnosed with heart failure.

"I used to like to wash the car, and by the time I was done washing the car, I was too tired to do the interior," Cummings said.

Doctors said Cummings' blood pressure was too high, preventing his heart from pumping enough blood to the rest of his body. That's when his wife, Anne, found a clinical trial to "hot-wire" his heart.

"I guess my wife must like me, because she wanted to keep me around, and she started searching the internet for anything she could find on heart failure and came across this trial," Cummings said.

Cummings was the first heart failure patient to have the device implanted. Surgeons insert a battery pack -- no bigger than an iPod -- under the collarbone and place electrodes around the carotid artery in the neck. When the pack pulses, the electrodes stimulate the artery, telling the brain to relax the heart -- which can then fill up with enough blood and pump properly.

"It's like a switch, on and off," said Dr. Fadi Matar, director of the Cardiac Care Unit at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

In an earlier trial to combat high blood pressure alone, the device helped patients on average lower their numbers from 180 over 158 to 105 over 87, in three months.

"What we're trying to do is improve the quality of life without necessarily taking tons of pills because medications," Dr. Matar said. "They have their own side effects."

After three months with the device, Cummings doesn't take any heart medications and hopes to keep it that way.

"I seem to have a little more energy," he said. "I can be on my feet longer, do more."

So now those long walks with his wife aren't so long anymore.

The batteries in the device need to be changed every two years. Centers across the country are still enrolling for the heart failure trial.

To see if you qualify, visit