Mike Burke and his wife, Becky, are raising a toddler with a sense of relief and optimism that didn’t exist just two years ago. Faced with life-threatening heart disease, UR Medicine Heart and Vascular restored his health with a specialized ablation technique, providing the confidence the young couple worried would never return.
The Burkes were expecting their first child in the summer of 2014 when he was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition characterized by thickening of the heart muscle. Over time, the disease causes severe obstruction of blood flow and the potential for life-threatening irregular heart rhythm.
Doctors detected something was amiss with his heart during testing for kidney stones and urged him to see a specialist. Burke, 29, was diagnosed with the genetic disease, a frightening situation for the couple, who live in Dundee south of Canandaigua.
“We were dealing with life and death stuff. We had a baby on the way, and then a serious heart problem. We weren’t prepared for that,” said Burke, a network administrator at Keuka College. His wife is a health teacher at Corning-Painted Post High School.
“We were thinking worst-case scenario and didn’t know where we were going to end up.”
He sought the expertise of specialists at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital. Interventional cardiologist Christopher Cove, M.D., said, “Burke had a severe case of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and was at high risk of sudden cardiac death.”
Treatment options were removal of a portion of the septum, which is the gold standard for the condition; or alcohol septal ablation, a less-invasive technique that thins the heart muscle.
Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is most commonly identified in people in their 40s or older. When a young adult, like Burke, is diagnosed, they often have advanced disease and are at higher risk of sudden death. Burke needed an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, or ICD, to correct the heart function, Cove said.
Burke chose the ablation technique followed by the defibrillator implant, because he wanted to support his wife during delivery. He couldn’t imagine the possibility of missing the birth or first days of fatherhood because he was recovering from open-heart surgery.
“This was an easy decision because Dr. Cove explained everything that was happening with my heart and how the treatment options would work,” Burke said. “He took time with us and it was very helpful in reducing our stress level.”
About alcohol septal ablation
Cove is one of a few specialists in the nation performing alcohol septal ablation. Using real-time echocardiography, led by Karl Schwarz, M.D., to guide the procedure, the team inserts a balloon catheter into an artery in the groin to access the heart. Doctors inject contrast dye into the small arteries that supply blood to the septum to identify the bulge in the heart wall, targeting it for ablation.
Then doctors inject a tiny amount, just 0.1 to 0.3 cubic centimeters, of 98-percent alcohol into the muscle, destroying the cells and instantly shrinking the bulge. The alcohol is diluted and non-toxic once it reaches the blood stream, Cove explained.
Recovery usually takes a week, though many people return to their normal routine after a few days.
About 20 to 30 people undergo this procedure each year at Strong Memorial Hospital, the only Upstate New York center providing it. Cove has performed the technique for 15 years.
Burke is the youngest person with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy to receive this ablation treatment at Strong Memorial Hospital. He recovered from the Aug. 5, 2014, procedure quickly and returned to Strong for subcutaneous defibrillator implantation by electrophysiologist Spencer Rosero, M.D.
This type of defibrillator does not require leads, or wires, inside a vessel in the heart. It has a lower risk of infection and doctors believe it is a better option for a young patient, like Burke, who will require life-long protection from serious cardiac arrhythmias.
The father-to-be was hospitalized overnight. The next day, his wife was suspicious that she may be in labor. They traveled to Arnot Ogden Medical Center in Elmira, her obstetrician was, and their daughter, Katie, was born the next day.
Becky Burke is grateful her husband was with her for the special occasion. “There are some events in your life that you remember every detail and can be right back there in an instant. That was one of those times for us.”