January 14, 2011

Nason "Joe" Akers spent his 2009 Christmas in the hospital, having five bypasses on Dec. 24.

"I told the nurse that bypass surgery was my Christmas present," he said. "She said being alive was my present, and I had to agree."

Akers, who is 72, had suffered from angina (chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle does not get enough blood) for years and had trouble doing the simplest of daily tasks. After having a total of 12 stents that led to bypass surgery, Akers was referred to the external counterpulsation (ECP) therapy program at CAMC.

"Patients who have stable angina and are not candidates for further invasive treatment (cardiac stents or angioplasty procedures) are normally covered by insurance for these treatments," said Ed Haver, director of the cardiac rehabilitation program. "Oftentimes ECP patients have had cardiac bypass surgery or other heart procedures done in the past, but the angina returned and can't be adequately treated."

ECP therapy works to improve circulation to the heart muscle, increasing oxygen-rich blood flow to the heart and reducing its workload. It also helps to build new pathways around blocked arteries in the heart by expanding tiny blood vessels that aid blood flow.

The treatment is done with the patient lying on his back on a padded bed. Large blood pressure-like cuffs are wrapped around the patient's calves, thighs and buttocks. These cuffs automatically inflate and deflate, beginning with the lower legs and working upward corresponding to every heartbeat. When the heart is at rest the cuffs inflate and then rapidly deflate before the heart beats again. This procedure takes one hour, and the patient comes five days per week for seven weeks. While the procedure takes place, the patient can watch TV, listen to music or talk with the cardiac rehab staff who monitor the procedure.

Akers, who lives in Beckley, was able to complete the treatment more quickly by having it two times per day, five days a week.

"Everybody's been real nice and accommodating here, and the treatments aren't painful at all," Akers said. "When I started, I had to take naps because I was so tired from it, but now I don't. All the trips to Charleston have been worth it since it is keeping me from having chest pains."

Patients can return for more treatments if their symptoms return in the future. Anyone interested in ECP needs to be referred by their family physician or specialist.

"Because of the positive impact of the procedures, it is important that the patient's physician be involved in his care," Haver said. "The medical community in Charleston has been very supportive of ECP because their patients have usually exhausted all other avenues of cardiac care, leaving them both very frustrated. It has been very gratifying to the staff to be able to help patients regain their health and well being when they thought there was no hope."

Because of ECP, Joe Akers has renewed hope for the new year.

"It's great," he said. "I have more energy and no angina. I walk two miles every morning, can finally mow my grass and do some other work around the house that I hadn't been able to do."

For more information about cardiac programs at CAMC, visit www.camc.org/heart or call (304) 388-9520.


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