Inside the operating room, building a 3D model of the heart

HALIFAX – By all accounts, Campbell Howell shouldn’t be alive.

The 47-year-old from Moncton has a hereditary heart condition called arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy, ARVC. It causes heart muscle to be replaced by scar and fat tissue, which then causes significant arrhythmias.

“Either I will pass out and faint or…I just drop instantly. I just fall to the floor, basically my heart doesn’t beat at all,” Howell said.

He is one of the oldest men in his family who has lived with the condition: a cousin died at the age of 31, an uncle passed away at the age of 44 and Howell’s father died at 39.

The father of two has been close to death several times but said the scarier thing is he never knows when the next arrhythmia will hit.

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But now, his doctor is working on innovative research that could help Howell and others like him.

Dr. John Sapp, a heart rhythm specialist with Capital Health, is leading the research project to better understand the heart’s electrical activity through 3D maps, with the goal of using it to pinpoint where it may be short-circuiting.

The research would help patients who have prior heart problems and often suffer from sudden, dangerous arrhythmias that cannot be predicted.

“Sudden death is a major cause of death in North America. It’s far too often, far too soon and it’s tragic,” said Dr. Sapp.

Right now, there is technology available to map the electrical signals of the heart.

“We’re recording the electrical activity of the heart seen on the body surface. What we can do now is use computers to analyze that signal and try to predict where the short circuit that’s causing it – the heart rhythm abnormality – is coming from,” Sapp said.

However, Sapp said the current method is invasive, challenging and time-consuming.

The procedure involves catheters that doctors wield around the heart. The catheters have radio heads so when under x-ray, doctors are able to pick up electrical signals from the heart to then generate a 3D shell of the heart. Procedures can often take up to 10 hours.

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“It’s complex and a bit difficult. Some of the reasons we fail when we do fail is because we can’t figure out where the short circuit is, which part of the scar in the heart is causing it,” Sapp said.

The heart rhythm specialist is working on a method that would be less invasive, more efficient and easier.

“It’s a simpler, computerized approach that tries to get doctors to the right area quickly and easily,” he said.

“We’ve been able to develop a computer algorithm that can rapidly identify where bad heart rhythms are coming from in real time for a doctor doing a procedure.”

Dr. Sapp has spent the majority of his career working on the research and is passionate it.

“I think this work is important because it can help our future patients. It might be me. It might be my dad. It might be my friend or relative. Heart disease is so prevalent in Nova Scotia. If we can find ways to make that treatment better, I think we have to pursue it.”

Howell said the doctor’s research to map the heart is critical.

“Once we have a good mapping of the heart, we know where to go for the problem area and hopefully it will help a lot of people,” he said.

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The research, which is being done in collaboration with Dalhousie University, is in the testing phase right now. Funding was also provided by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Institute of Health Research.

Global News reporter Julia Wong had the opportunity to go inside the operating room as Howell underwent his heart mapping procedure.

Read about her experience on our live blog recap: