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Annette Lawrence

A story about high blood pressure

Annette Lawrence

High blood pressure may be called the Silent Killer. But for Annette Lawrence, it was all too clear that this disorder was seriously affecting her health.

"I would have headaches so bad, I thought I was having a brain aneurism," says Annette. "Sometimes I would have to stay in bed for days."

A 37-year-old Rochester woman, Annette had suffered from hypertension since she was 28. "It runs in my family," says Annette. Only somehow, Annette got hit worse than anyone. At times, her blood pressure was as high as 220/130.

"I was on eleven different medications at one point!" says Annette. "The doctors would try one blood pressure medicine and it wouldn't work. They kept adding more and adding more and nothing worked."

Over the course of 9 years, Annette tried numerous doctors. None could find the right combination of medications that would help her. "One doctor told me, 'If we don't get this down, you might not survive,'" says Annette. "That worried me."

At one point, Annette's blood pressure suddenly shot up. She got concerned and called Dr. Kaplan, a nephrologist she had been seeing at Strong Memorial Hospital. He set up an appointment with her for the next day.

When she went to see him, Dr. Kaplan told her about a friend of his who was testing something new-a blood pressure implant. He asked if she would be interested in finding out more, and possibly getting the implant herself. Annette told him, "We've done all that we can do. Let's go for it."

A meeting was schedule for Annette with Dr. Karl Illig and Dr. James Sloan, the lead investigators on the blood pressure implant at the URMC Heart & Vascular Center. When she went into Illig's office, her blood pressure was incredibly high.

"They told me I was a good candidate," Annette says. "I was on more medications than anyone!" The surgery was scheduled for 3 weeks out.

The Rheos Baroreflex Hypertension System was in use in Europe but had yet to be tested in the United States. The URMC Heart & Vascular Center was chosen as the first center in the country to implant the device.

"It's basically like a pacemaker," says Dr. Illig, Chief of Vascular Surgery at the URMC Heart & Vascular Center. "It sends electrical impulses to the carotid arteries in the neck. This tells the brain your blood pressure is too high, activating the body's existing system to reduce your blood pressure, naturally."

The device—about the size of a cell phone—was implanted into Annette's chest, just below the collar bone, in a 3-hour operation on March 31, 2005. In the operating room, the device was turned on momentarily to test it. Almost instantly, Annette's blood pressure dropped to a much more normal, safer range. It was then turned off to ensure that there were no complications from the operation. Annette had to wait a month for it to be turned back on. But what has happened since then is nearly miraculous.

"My life has changed drastically," says Annette. "Before, I was often confined to bed. Now, I'm out more. I can go up hills. I can climb stairs. Everything is better. The best part is, I'm chasing after my grandson again." Annette's grandson, Jehmier, is 16 months old.

With the implant, Annette's blood pressure now stays consistently in a much safer range. Periodically, adjustments are made by her doctors. Since the implant is completely beneath her skin, it is fine-tuned with a wand that is held just above her skin. Doctors make adjustments on a computer that is connected to the wand.

According to Dr. Illig, the device is still in testing and there are many steps ahead before it is approved for the general market as a blood pressure treatment. Furthermore, doctors need to prove that it is safer and better than drug therapy for high blood pressure. But for Annette Lawrence, the high blood pressure implant has already proven itself.

"I'm not stressed. I'm more calm now," says Annette. "I wouldn't want to get rid of it for anything in the world."