wave

The tiny clip that fixes hearts

Erica’s life literally changed overnight. One day, the 38-year-old mother of four was playing in a tennis championship at her local club and the next day, she was having a heart attack.

“I had no health problems. I had a job, a family, did a lot of sport. And that was my life. Suddenly I didn’t feel so good, and then I collapsed,” she recalls. Fortunately, Erica’s husband Gert realised that there was something wrong with her heart and called an ambulance.

At the hospital, doctors determined that she’d had spontaneous coronary artery dissection, a rare occurrence that happens when a person’s coronary artery wall tears without any warning. The artery wall has three layers and the tear allows blood to pass through the innermost layer and become trapped and bulge inward. This narrows or blocks the artery and can cause a heart attack because blood cannot flow to the heart muscle.

The next thing Erica remembers is waking up from surgery. “I was lying there and I couldn’t move my arm. I couldn’t do a thing. I just lay there in that bed and wondered what was going on. Then I looked down and I’d been opened up from top to bottom,” she says. Her heart had completely stopped but doctors were able to save her on the operating table. But that wasn’t the end of the ordeal.

“It was the first night my husband went home. A girlfriend slept in my room. I felt something was wrong and that I was having another heart attack. I was well aware of it,” she remembers. Indeed, she did have another heart attack, but there was nothing doctors could do at that stage to stop it. Although this was quite a setback, Erica recovered and three weeks later, she was thrilled to be going home.

Things didn’t go as she’d envisioned. At home, Erica needed help with everything. She couldn’t even make it up the stairs. “I sat all the time in the wheelchair and wanted to do everything again as I used to before,” she tells This Is Medtech. She made the difficult decision to go back to hospital for another operation to repair a heart valve (her mitral valve), which was leaking badly.

The night before the operation, however, Erica received the devastating news that the surgery had to be cancelled. “They wanted to put in a new heart valve but I was too weak for that and the risks were too great,” she says. Then her cardiologist proposed another solution that wouldn’t require open heart surgery.

The procedure involved reaching the damaged heart valve via a vein in her leg. Erica’s surgeon made a minimally invasive incision in her groin, where he inserted a tube carrying a small polyester-covered metal clip up through the vein to her heart and then secured the loose valve flaps together with it. 

“When I came back from the operating theatre and came round, I immediately felt relief,” she notes. “I’d had a very heavy heart before. It felt as if I had a weight on my heart. And that was gone. I immediately felt it really had helped me.”

“The biggest challenge for me was that I wanted to get back the life that I had before I became ill,” says Erica. Since the operation, she’s been able to do this. “I was back home in a few days. I got out of the wheelchair quickly and then went to full rehabilitation and recovered in a few months.” Erica can now do everything she did before, including the sport she enjoys so much.

“My cardiologist had initially said to me: ‘Do you realise how ill you are?’ I thought I must be, if a doctor is saying so. Now he says I can grow old like this. And that is the best thing you could ever hear,” she finishes.