Operating on a beating heart sounds impossible but that is exactly what surgeons did when open heart surgery first became a reality in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, pioneering physicians partnered with biomedical engineers to develop crude devices to exchange the oxygen and carbon dioxide in blood, bypassing the heart and lungs.
In 1966, physicians figured out a way to stop the heart from beating. It still fibrillated but had no rhythmic beat, making it easier for surgeons to operate with greater precision. They still had to move quickly, since the heart could only be fibrillated for 30 minutes without causing irreparable damage. Additionally, patients often had tough recoveries due to an inflammatory response from the crude heart/lung bypass machines used at that time.
In the early days, open heart surgery was uncommon because of poor outcomes. The first open heart surgery in Wake County was performed at WakeMed in March 1968, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the WakeMed heart program really took off following a successful open heart surgery that was performed on our CEO at the time. He had a good result that allowed him to return to work and later enjoy many years of retirement. Since then, WakeMed has been on a successful journey to offer state-of-the-art cardiac care in a community hospital setting with few limitations.
Today, blockages in coronary arteries are managed very well by medical therapy. High-risk “code STEMI” revascularization procedures, where blocked blood vessels that feed the heart oxygen are opened, are completed in a less invasive way in the heart cath lab and have excellent outcomes.
For patients who still need open heart surgery, there is also good news because surgeons can work in bloodless operative fields on non-beating hearts with the luxury of time. No longer is there a 30-minute window to complete extremely complex surgeries.
Dr. Charlie Helton, a WakeMed heart surgeon who began his graduate medical education in 1963, experienced first-hand many of these exciting advances in cardiac care. He continues to be impressed by modern cardiac care and the options that are now available for patients, especially at the WakeMed Heart Center, where many blocked coronary arteries are opened daily and heart valves are repaired or replaced. For patients, these advances are particularly important because they often lead to a longer, better quality of life.
Learn more about WakeMed’s Heart Center here.