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How do you mend a broken heart?

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been nearly 50 years since the first human-to-human heart transplant was performed.

That operation, performed on Dec. 3, 1967, by South African Dr. Christiaan Barnard on 53-year-old Louis Washkansky, gave people with serious cardiac problems hope for a new lease on life.

Cardiac surgery has come a long way since then. A tiny device that won FDA approval in 2013 marked another step forward by giving options to heart patients too frail to undergo the kind of open heart surgery traditionally needed to fix a leaky valve.

A diagram shows how a MitraClip can be used to fix a leaking heart valve. The minimally invasive surgery involves a tiny incision in a vein in the right leg through which a catheter is inserted and guided to the heart valve. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The MitraClip is a roughly thumbnail-size device that can be used to repair the valve without the risks of opening the chest and putting the patient on a heart-lung bypass machine during surgery, said Dr. Sharif Halim an interventional cardiologist with Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

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Presbyterian recruited Halim from Duke University where he had been performing MitraClip surgery and, in January last year, Presbyterian’s downtown Albuquerque hospital became the first facility in New Mexico to offer the minimally invasive technique. Since then, 25 patients have had the tiny devices inserted at the hospital. They’ve come from all over New Mexico, Southern Colorado and El Paso, Halim said.

Kendall Williams, 61, was one of those patients. He was suffering from mitral valve regurgitation, a condition where the valve that prevents heart-bound oxygenated blood from flowing backward into the lungs, is malfunctioning. Patients with this condition typically feel short of breath and fatigue easily. It is usually related to age, a birth defect or underlying heart disease.

Williams had suffered a heart attack and received a stent to open a blockage in his heart artery. But in the following weeks, he lacked appetite and lost 75 pounds, developed pneumonia and suffered kidney failure.

Coincidentally, a friend of Williams read a Journal article about Presbyterian offering the MitraClip surgery and told him about it. Williams didn’t know what a mitral valve was, but called Presbyterian hospital.

Dr. Robert Federici, medical director of Presbyterian’s heart program, said Williams’ overall health was too compromised to allow open heart surgery, making him a candidate for the MitraClip.

 

Kendall Williams before his mitral valve repair with MitraClip therapy. (Courtesy of Kendall Williams )

The procedure involves a tiny incision in the groin through which a catheter tube carrying the MitraClip is inserted and directed to the heart. The MitraClip brings the valve flaps together to prevent leakage. The device is produced by Abbott Laboratories. They are made of a metal called cobalt-chromium and covered in a polyester fabric which allows the body’s tissue to grow over it.

“It saved my life,” said Williams.

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In the months after the surgery, Williams said he regained 40 pounds and has been able to enjoy traveling all over the country.

Kendall Williams gained 40 pounds after his mitral valve repair with MitraClip therapy. (Courtesy of Kendall Williams )

“I’m lucky to be alive. I’m lucky I’m not on oxygen and I’m lucky I’m not on dialysis,” Williams said.

Federici said the MitraClip surgery is part of a comprehensive “cradle to grave” heart program at Presbyterian.

“Our vision is to be able to provide national class cardiac care for patients in New Mexico,” said Federici.

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