Using an innovative cardiovascular procedure, physicians at HCA St. Mark's Hospital are now able to clear blocked arteries of patients suffering from leg pain.

In many cases, the procedure eliminates the need for bypass surgery."HCA St. Mark's is proud to help pioneer this exciting laser surgery technique, which represents a breakthrough in the treatment of blood vessel, and soon, heart disease," said Max Lauderdale, hospital administrator.

The procedure uses laser technology to clear blocked arteries caused by atherosclerosis, the most common cause for blocked arteries to the legs. Approved by the federal government in March 1987, the procedure is expected to receive approval within the coming months to open blocked arteries near the heart that cause heart attacks.

St. Mark's new program is encouraging news to patients who suffer from arterial blockage in their legs, and thus lead severely restricted lives.

Dr. Robert Place, program coordinator, said blockages, caused by fatty deposits that build up inside the arteries - restricting blood and oxygen flow - create muscle cramping and make walking very painful. In the past, bypass surgery or balloon angioplasty has been used to correct the problem.

Place, a cardiac surgeon, said a major advantage of the laser over other techniques is the laser's removal of fatty deposits caused by the accumulation of cholesterol. The laser melts blockages with its intense heat.

To clear blockages, Place explained, the laser probe is inserted through a small incision into the artery. The laser is advanced to the obstruction and is turned on. In two seconds, the tip of the laser, less than one tenth of an inch in diameter, reaches 750 degrees Fahrenheit.

The laser tip is pushed gently through the blockage, vaporizing it within a matter of seconds.

Place said if the opening needs to be enlarged, a balloon-like device is inflated in the artery, widening the channel. Throughout the procedure, the doctor manipulates the laser probe by watching its progress on a TV-like monitor.

Laser surgery takes about an hour or two to perform. It is usually painless and is performed under local or spinal anesthesia.

Place said recovery is rapid and patients can return to regular activities within days. These factors result in lower costs for laser surgery when compared with conventional bypass surgery.

Laser surgery also offers new alternatives and solutions for diabetics and others for whom conventional surgery may not be an option, Place said.

"Laser surgery can help reduce health-care costs in many cases," Lauderdale said. "The benefits of a shorter hospital stay, faster recovery at home and quicker return to work with fewer complications are benefits which we are proud to offer to our patients."