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CARMA project giving heart patients new hope


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SALT LAKE CITY -- A new project called CARMA is giving patients something they've never had before. For one Utah woman, doctors have now repaired her misfiring heart -- a condition she thought she would have to live with the rest of her life.


An estimate 5 million Americans have atrial fibrillation, which accounts for one-third of hospital admissions for cardiac rhythm disturbances. -CARMA

Michele Straube ran portions of a 5K race last weekend. Before the race, she was one of 5 million people is this country who had what is called atrial fibrillation, or A-fibrillation -- electrical disturbances of the heart that cause an irregular cardiac rhythm.

She was first diagnosed 30 years ago, but now she says, "As far as I know, I'm cured. Yes, every day I check my pulse compulsively: 'Oh, look, it's wonderful. It's still in rhythm.'"

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A catheterization procedure corrects electrical disturbances in a patient's heart. It's called ablation, and though Straube had been told it wouldn't work because she had had A-fibs for some three decades, it worked after all.

That's because geneticists, physicians, radiologists, physicists, mathematicians and others -- a 52-member team in all -- provided a backdrop to model Michele's heart and look at her individual problem on a cellular level.

This first-of-its-kind collective focus on what will work best for an individual patient is part of what is called CARMA, the University of Utah's Comprehensive Arrhythmia Research and Management Center.

Dr. Joshua Cates, with the CARMA project, said, "We are able to look at a patient and assess the stage of the progression of A-fib; and this is something that is very new."

Instead of guessing whether a patient should be on drugs or a diet or have surgery, doctors put the individual's heart on stage ahead of time, using analysis and remarkable MRI scans to confirm the outcome.

What is... atrial fibrillation?
Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a heart rhythm disorder (arrhythmia), usually involving a rapid heart rate, in which the upper heart chambers (atria) are stimulated to contract in a very disorganized and abnormal manner. This abnormal heart rhythm increases the likelihood that blood will pool and/or clots will form, which makes AF a leading cause of stroke. -CARMA

"[We're told,]'He needs ablation or he needs a drug, or he needs Cumedin; he needs blood thinners.' We say, ‘No, look at the cells,'" Dr. Nassir Marrouche explained.

As Marrouche said, they look at the origin of those electrical disturbances. They look at the source before starting treatment.

Before Straube was cured, she took a trip to Peru. Dizzy and breathless, she had to stop frequently as she hiked and climbed. Medications she had been using for so many years didn't do so well anymore.

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"When I got to the top of the pass, I was so angry that I had always been told that there is nothing more we can do for you. This is it!" she said.

What a difference now should she ever make that trip again.

As a heart condition, A-fibs cause 66,000 deaths and 120 strokes every year.

E-mail: eyeates@ksl.com

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Ed Yeates

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