FALL RIVER, Mass. (WPRI) — Another “first” for Southcoast Health’s Charlton Memorial Hospital is also a first for the nation in navigating new, less-invasive ways to treat heart conditions.
Most importantly, this “first” potentially saved Jennifer Link’s life when she was 32 years old this past spring — and social media can be to thank.
“I just had come in here and opened this cabinet to get a treat for the dog and I kind of was just holding on waiting for it to pass and fell back and woke up on the floor,” the Middletown woman said, acting out the scary scenario from this past May.
For most of Link’s life, she had experienced dizzy spells from time to time but was told they weren’t much of a concern. One time, it was different — she passed out and hurt her head and was concerned about having a concussion.
She checked with her sister who is a nurse and with her brother-in-law, an emergency room doctor. They recommended she get checked for a concussion at Newport Hospital. She got evaluated, tests were run, and she was sent home with orders to follow up with her primary care doctor where more tests were done and came back fine.
“[The primary care doctor] also ordered a halter monitor, so that’s something that I had to wear for 48 hours. I had a couple of leads, and then that is what caught the heart block,” Link explained.
A complete heart block.
As it turned out, Link had been suffering from heart pauses all her life. In fact, her heart would actually stop for up to 10 seconds at a time.
“This is what’s called a malignant form, meaning the heart completely stops. And it’s not just stopping, but it’s also a lack of communication between top and bottom chamber,” described Cardiac Electrophysiologist Dr. Nitesh Sood, who is also the director of the Southcoast Health Atrial Fibrillation Wellness Program.
It’s an uncommon condition for a healthy 32-year-old woman. The common solution is a pacemaker but Dr. Sood wasn’t keen on implanting a pacemaker, saying it really changes someone physically and mentally. Link and her family weren’t keen on it either.
“It’s a device that sticks out of your chest a little bit and obviously when you’re putting anything foreign into your body, there’s always a chance of infection, anything,” Link said.
She and Dr. Sood pointed out that a pacemaker battery has to be replaced every 8-to-10 years for the rest of a patient’s life, through surgery.
Immediately after getting Link’s case, Dr. Sood took to Twitter. He recalled reading a study from a Turkish doctor named Dr. Tolga Asku who used electric currents through cardiac nueroablation to treat the condition among young patients, which successfully eliminated the need for a pacemaker.
Dr. Sood messaged Dr. Asku who responded within hours to discuss the case and review how it’s performed.
The next day, Dr. Sood met with the cardiology team, legal team and risk management at Charlton and all determined it would be low-risk. That’s because, while the procedure for this condition on a young person on this part of the heart hadn’t been performed in the United States before, Dr. Sood was familiar with the procedure, having performed it before on other parts of the heart.
Electrophysiology Medical Director Dr. Ramin Davoudi credited the hospital’s teamwork and communication in getting this procedure approved and conducted quickly.
“I think our ability to sort of evaluate the patient individually and come to a quick consensus on what to do with her was kind of unique,” he said.
“The biggest issue that I told them was I think I can pull this off without significant risk, but I’m not sure I can pull this off. So, you might still end up with a pacemaker,” Dr. Sood recalled.
Link was onboard, saying, “Everyone was kind of just like, ‘you’ve got to try it. There’s nothing to lose basically.'”
A couple of days after the surgery, and nine days total in the hospital, Link returned home to recover, legally, for six months. The high school special education teacher is out of work during that time.
She showed 12 News a small chip right under the skin on her chest that’s connected to an app on her phone. Through the chip, she can monitor any irregularities in her heart and will continue to do so for the next two years.
So far, since her surgery on June 1, Link has celebrated a birthday and has not had any heart issues.
Dr. Sood said he’d be interested in performing this procedure on future patients who are young and fit the bill, which, again, is rare. However, the cardiology team cautioned that even with this being a success, most patients, especially older patients, would still benefit from a pacemaker.