Paul Heiden of Des Plaines joined the ranks of the world's heart attack victims only two weeks ago, but he is already a pioneer for an experimental new technology researchers hope will protect millions of lives in the future.
Heiden, 57, is Illinois' first recipient of an AngelMed Guardian cardiac monitoring implant.
Unlike a pacemaker or defibrillator which counteract too-fast or too-slow heartbeats, the new device detects much subtler electrical shifts in the heart that can precede all other symptoms of a heart attack by as much as two hours.
The alert feels like a pager vibration in one's chest, Heiden said. A small external device is then held to the heart to interpret the level of emergency.
Dr. Parag Patel, Heiden's cardiologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, said the promise of the AngelMed Guardian is to significantly reduce the amount of damage done to heart muscle by oxygen starvation during an attack.
Considering the hours the typical person waits after the symptoms of a heart attack before calling for help, the new device's usefulness lies in alerting a person to an attack before they even know they're having one, Patel said.
"Until now, we have not had anything that has allowed us to detect a heart attack sooner," he added.
In Heiden's case, he was able to rationalize his symptoms as indigestion for three days -- even though his identical twin brother died of a heart attack 11 years ago.
And even when he realized he had to go to the hospital, he expected the diagnosis to be a gall bladder problem.
In hindsight, Heiden said he realizes how powerful a phenomenon denial can be when it comes to a heart attack.
For several decades now, the most sophisticated means of detecting a heart attack has been the 12-lead electrocardiogram, which can only be practically used when one is already in the hospital or at least under the immediate care of a paramedic.
The AngelMed Guardian system, on the other hand, monitors and records heart functions around the clock, theoretically for the rest of the patient's life.
But the device is just beginning a three-year trial phase before it has any possibility of being approved for general use. And that's where the volunteerism of people like Heiden comes in.
"There has to be a level of understanding of what this clinical trial is," Patel said of the criteria for choosing potential candidates. "We have to find someone who's concerned about their health and willing to give a part of their body in the name of science."
Nine days after the device was implanted, Heiden reported to Patel's office Friday morning for a follow-up and to find out whether it would be activated immediately or in six months.
The conditions of the trial phase dictate that half of the implants -- chosen at random -- are turned on now and that the other half wait, allowing half a year to compare how the two groups fare.
One of the chief areas of study is how often "false positives" will be measured by the device, Patel said. But a recently completed trial in Brazil found very few.
Having already had the implant operation, Heiden hoped to hear that he would be part of the early group.
"I'd rather have it on immediately," Heiden said. "It would offer a benefit that would ease my anxiety. I'd feel like I'd have another angel looking over me."
Minutes later, after hospital officials checked him in on a website, he was told he was not chosen for immediate activation. But as a very recent heart attack victim whose bypass operation is still coming up, his condition will be very much under Patel's scrutiny during his six-month wait.
In the meantime, he's relying on already approved equipment -- albeit much bulkier -- like the heart-monitoring vest he wears.
"He is getting the benefit of every technology that is available to keep him safe and well," Patel said.
When Patel was starting his career 15 years ago, he imagined technology similar to this would be available by now. But he likened it to the flying car in explaining how reality often moves at a slower pace than dreams.
Among his high hopes for the new device is that its technology will one day be combined with the pacemakers and implanted defibrillators many are already using.
Research coordinator Gabriella Fini said 170 patients are already part of the nationwide clinical trial, but that a total of 600 are being sought.
While Lutheran General is now the regional base for the trial, area cardiologists can recommend their patients for the trial without fear of losing them as patients, Fini said.