WVU Cardiologists Diagnose and Treat ‘Hidden’ Heart Problems


MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - When 41 year-old Jennifer Smith began experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath, she never imagined her journey from physician to physician would lead her to West Virginia University Children’s Hospital.  

“Before I came to WVU, doctors at other practices kept saying, ‘you’re too young to have heart problems,” Smith, a Morgantown resident, said.  “They kept telling me I was too stressed.”

The recommended treatment from one doctor was to enroll in yoga classes but Smith was not sold on the fact that her symptoms were simply “stress-related.”  She finally sought help from WVU cardiologist Larry Rhodes, MD.

 Dr. Gudausky shows Jennifer Smith a device identical to the one used to fix her atrial septal defect.

“Had I not found Dr. Rhodes I could have been doing yoga for the next ten years,” Smith said.

Rhodes ordered heart tests and found a hole between the upper chambers of Smith’s heart called an atrial septal defect; as a result her heart was enlarged.  He then referred her to pediatric cardiologist Todd Gudausky, MD.  Dr. Gudausky specializes in closing ASDs, which are most common in children but occasionally go undiagnosed until adulthood.

“Blood doesn’t normally flow between the left and right chambers of the heart,” Gudausky said.  “But when you have a hole, like Jennifer did, you get an abnormal increase in blood flow.”

 Jennifer Smith returns to WVU Children's Hospital to visit Krista Pyles, RN, days after a procedure to close her atrial septal defect

The extra blood flow causes the right side of the heart to work in overdrive and become enlarged.  As a result patients feel tired, suffer from difficulty breathing and have an increased risk of respiratory infection. 

“Most adult patients are not diagnosed sooner because they often don’t display symptoms until their 40s or 50s,” explained Gudausky, who has preformed more than 35 ASD closures prior arriving at WVU.  “Luckily, we were able to help Jennifer before she suffered any serious consequences.”

Larger ASDs can even result in heart failure and death. 

“I was nervous but the doctor painted such an easy picture to follow,” Smith said.  “He said that he took my information and presented it to the entire cardiology department.  The Heart Institute team said we should give this procedure a try.”

Traditional surgical procedures to close ASDs involve open-heart surgery with cardiac bypass.  The heart is stopped and opened.  The hole is patched and sewn closed.  The newer, less invasive option preformed by Gudausky uses an Amplazter Septal Occluder, a tiny wire mesh device made of nickel and titanium, to close the hole. 

Doctors insert a catheter through a vein in the leg.  The catheter travels through the body until it reaches the heart.  There, the device is positioned, secured and released, thereby closing the hole.

“The entire procedure takes two to three hours to complete,” Gudausky said.  “The patient is able to be up, moving around and discharged the next day.”

Over a three to six month period, a scar forms on the heart at the device site.  Once the scar forms, the device is forever secured to the heart.

Smith, an active runner and Civil War reenactor, claims she could not believe how great she felt after the catherization.

“I had the procedure on a Tuesday and on Friday evening I was well enough to go out to dinner,” she said.

Smith was soon able to enjoy her normal work and extracurricular activities, like teaching fifth grade science at Skyview Elementary School, where her procedure has piqued student interest in all matters of the heart.

“We learned a song about blood flow through the chambers of the heart to the tune of the hokey pokey,” Smith laughed.  Her students even signed and delivered her a get-well, heart-shaped pillow before the procedure. 

While the thought of singing heart songs with her students bring a smile to her face, Smith warns others to not take these matters too lightly.

“Patients really need to be their own advocates,” she said.  “I trusted my first physician but you know your body and you know if something’s wrong.”

For more information on the WVU Heart Institute visit  www.wvuheart.com or call the cardiology department at (304) 598-4855.

 The Amplatzer Septal Occluder expands to close the hole between the chambers of the heart.  
 A diagram showing the placement of an Amplatzer Septal Occluder  
 A diagram comparing a healthy heart to a heart with an atrial septal defect

- WVU -

For more information:
Steve Bovino, HSC News Service, (304) 293-7087
cw: 04-26-07

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