MURRAY — Electric energy from the implanted defibrillator jolted Stephen Summerill's heart seven times before he found himself in a Pocatello hospital two weeks ago.
"It's just like if you were to go up to a light switch and touch the two wires together," he said. "Take that jolt, only about 20 times harder. … It is a very hard, terrible feeling. It's very scary, and one of the scariest parts for me is that I feel it coming on."
Summerill's weak heart — a gift of poor genetics — had started to give out once again, leading the 69-year-old to the latest in a string of surgeries that began about 27 years ago to keep him alive.
This time, however, it would be a cutting-edge procedure that had never before been done anywhere in the country.
Doctors in Summerill's hometown sent him to cardiologists at Utah's Intermountain Medical Center, where two highly specialized and technologically advanced techniques were done in tandem "to provide a very safe, complex, successful procedure for a patient who really had a very deadly medical circumstance," said Dr. J. Peter Weiss, a heart rhythm specialist at the hospital.
With only about a third of his heart functioning normally, Summerill was headed down a road that included either a high-dose medication regimen and eventual heart transplant — or death, Weiss said.
"Getting shocks from the defibrillator device, which is life-saving, is certainly not a lot of fun," the doctor said. "It's no way to live."
Typical ablation procedures, he said, have utilized long, stiff catheters that are often difficult to maneuver and can potentially create additional problems by poking through the walls of the heart.
Also, being under anesthesia for long periods of time can have negative effects on the patient's blood pressure, leading to potential heart failure during a procedure.
To avoid any complication, doctors anticipated Summerill's weakened condition and readied a centrifugal pump that sits outside the body to support the circulation in a failing heart.
The pump kept Summerill alive while Weiss used the Stereotaxis Magnetic Navigation System to guide a much softer, more malleable catheter throughout the damaged heart, identifying and cauterizing the various sources of arrhythmias as it went along.
By using the highly specialized technology, Summerill was exposed to one-fourth the radiation he would have been under typical circumstances, and Weiss' exposure was next to nothing, as he conducted the majority of the procedure using a computer located behind a glass partition in one of Intermountain's catheter labs.
Just eight hours after the seven-hour procedure, Summerill was walking around, and in less than 48 hours, the small business owner was back home.
"My doctors told me, 'You go back to work, and you let the body be the judge,' and that's what I've done for the last 27 years," Summerill said. "It's been quite a road."
Dr. James Revenaugh, an interventional cardiologist at the IMC, placed the heart pump in Summerill's procedure. Revenaugh said an increasing number of patients being treated for heart problems are exhibiting higher risk circumstances, as more are surviving heart attacks and living with heart dysfunction than ever before.
Not only that, but weakened hearts can't usually survive such invasive procedures without the use of advanced technologies.
"This was clearly a situation that required a creative approach," he said.
The doctors had some concern that the magnetic forces of the navigation machines would dislodge the wire-wound cannulas used to place the catheter, but they tested each instrument and determined everything would be fine.
Summerill, whose eyes welled up while talking about his latest chance at life, called himself a "very lucky person."2 comments on this story
"I felt I was in the best hands I could be in. They knew what they were doing, and in their eyes, I was No. 1, and nothing else counted to them," he said, adding that he "takes each day at a time."
Revenaugh said he foresees procedures similar to Summerill's being done in the future, even as research finds new and approved uses for all kinds of medical devices.