Local hospital tests world's smallest heart pump that could change future of heart surgery

Posted at 6:23 PM, Dec 16, 2020

(WXYZ) — Nearly 500,000 people undergo open heart surgery every year. It's costly, and there's risk of death, stroke, or other complications.

But there is groundbreaking research out of Detroit from St. John Ascension Hospital that may one day lead to a much safer way to save lives of people with severe heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the U.S., and nothing is more dire than when your doctor says your arteries are blocked and you need open heart surgery to save your life. That was the case for Robert Mathews.

"The odds were not in his favor, we knew going in the risk ultimately could be death," Robert's daughter, Tanya, said. "He had blockages in his neck, in his leg, in his heart."

Robert was almost 80 with a history of heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes, so open heart surgery was not a risk he was willing to take.

According to the American Heart Association, 2-3% of people who undergo heart bypass surgery die. Actor Bill Paxton, known for his roles in "Titanic" and "Alien" died at 61 from a stroke and complications after open heart surgery in 2017.

Angelo Hassan had three blocked arteries five months ago in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and could barely walk or even play with his young son.

"My heart is only beating 15 percent and I'm a high risk patient," Angelo said.

At 52, his cardiologist, Dr. Amir Kaki of Ascension St. John Hospital in Detroit, had a message for him.

"I'm going to make sure you go home but I gotta build you up," Kaki said.

Angelo was given medication to get stronger, and Kaki opened his clogged arteries with stents. Afterward, he did return home to his wife and young son.

But for Robert Mathews, Kaki would offer him the chance to become the first person in the world to undergo an experimental surgery to open three blocked arteries with Impella, the world's smallest heart pump.

Kaki handles high-risk coronary patients. As part of the study, he would use the tiny pump, entering through the leg into a hole about the side of an IV. It's only about 3 millimeters long.

It gets bigger in the big vessel of the aorta and when doctors remove the pump, it collapses.

The procedure is less invasive and much safer with a lower chance of injury to your blood vessel. The pump has been under investigation for a decade.

It fixed all arteries for Robert Mathews, and he went home the next day in no pain, recovering within days.

"This could potentially help hundreds of thousands of patients in this country and millions in the world."

Another big benefit is the cost savings from an overnight stay in the hospital instead of weeks.

Four human patients have undergone this procedure and all have done well. If everything comes back from the trial and the pump gets the go-ahead, it could be available in about two years.