What is HCM?
- A genetic disorder affecting approximately 1 in 500 people
- Common manifestations of HCM is the “disarray” of heart muscle fibers
- Can cause mechanical obstruction to blood flowing out of the heart
- Common complaints are shortness of breath palpitations, fatigue, chest pain, dizziness or passing out
Ten Years After Historic Heart Treatment, Patient Still in Great Shape
Tim Erwin is an athlete and a coach, and he prides himself on staying fit as he approaches middle age. He credits his health - and possibly his life - to that one shot of alcohol he took ten years ago.
It was intoxicating only in the respect that it cured Erwin of a heart condition that could have killed him, and a decade down the line he still feels great.
He was the first patient in the country to receive a then-experimental treatment called alcohol ablation that was being tested at The Methodist Hospital.
In 1996, Erwin was diagnosed with hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a genetic disorder in which the muscle dividing the heart's chambers becomes overgrown. Because that extra muscle blocked the blood flow, Erwin's heart didn't beat as efficiently and he quickly became tired and breathless when he exercised.
Doctors told him about the experiment ablation treatment: they would inject a small amount of pure alcohol into blood vessels near Erwin's heart. The alcohol would destroy the extra heart muscle that was hampering his heartbeat.
“I sure didn't want to have surgery,” recalls Erwin, who is now 48 years old. “I had been taking medication to help my condition but it made me dizzy and I couldn't take it anymore. Aside from surgery, the procedure was really my only alternative.”
The treatment had been developed only two years earlier, in 1994, by a British physician, Dr. Ulrich Sigwart. Dr.William Spencer, a cardiologist at Methodist, was Sigwart's American counterpart who performed the procedure on Erwin.
“By that time I had a defibrillator implanted in my chest,” Erwin says. “I was ready for anything that would prevent major surgery.”
Sigwart flew to Houston from London for the surgery, which took place at The Methodist Hospital on Nov. 14, 1996.The physicians threaded a catheter into Erwin's heart and delivered the alcohol injection.
“Well, the rest of the story is that I've been excellent. I haven't had to take medication, and that particular health problem was cured,” Erwin says.
“I can still exercise, play basketball and keep in shape,” explains Erwin, a gymnastics coach at the Jewish Community Center in Houston. “Of course, I don't push myself hard but I'm able to stay reasonably active. I feel better than Iever have.”
Today, alcohol ablation is offered at the Methodist DeBakey Heart Center. It remains the best non-surgical alternative to people who have hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy, a condition most often seen in young athletes.
A handful of young athletes die suddenly each year; many of them die while playing football, basketball or another physically demanding sport. The cause is almost always obstructive cardiomyopathy.