Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland heart operations beamed across world

Heart surgery
Image caption Three live operations from Belfast City Hospital were this week beamed to the largest cardiovascular interventional conference in San Francisco.

Northern Ireland is at the centre of cutting-edge pioneering heart interventions that are leading the way across the world.

Three live operations from Belfast City Hospital were, this week, beamed to the largest cardiovascular interventional conference in San Francisco.

About 450 health professionals from around the world watched cardiologists perform procedures on three women.

These patients had serious heart complications.

Although the procedures are performed regularly in Northern Ireland, they are unfamiliar to many cardiologists in other countries.

It is all down to two doctors who, less than a decade ago, realised Northern Ireland was going to experience a massive cardiovascular problem and set to work looking at alternative ways to perform non-invasive heart surgery.

Speaking to the BBC just minutes before the live link-up with America, Dr Colm Hanratty, an interventional cardiologist, said it was a proud moment for the team.

"We are sharing our skills, very specialist techniques that don't involve open heart operations but, instead, intervention through the arm or leg, giving little access to the heart," he said.

"Until recently this wasn't available. People had to go on living with their debilitating conditions or some may have died."

The Transcatheter Cardiovascular Therapeutic (TCT) conference is the world's largest and most important educational meeting.

It is the first time such a broadcast has taken place in Northern Ireland, the second from the island of Ireland.

According to Dr Hanratty, it is significant not only for the Belfast Health Trust, but for the entire Northern Ireland health system.

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Media captionDr Colm Hanratty said it was a proud moment for the team.

"Northern Ireland was selected for the work that we do - these procedures are not performed in every country - but they are in Belfast, Derry and Craigavon, with a majority in the Belfast Health Trust," he said.

The three patients involved in Wednesday's live link-up were all women with serious heart conditions, so serious and frail that their bodies would not withstand open heart surgery.

All three had stents inserted and were awake during the process.

To insert the stent, a fine hollow tube, with a small inflatable balloon at its tip, was passed into an artery through the arm.

It is directed up to the heart and into a coronary artery until its tip reaches a narrow or blocked section.

The balloon is then gently inflated widening the artery and allowing the blood to flow more easily.

A stent - which is a small tube of stainless steel mesh - about two inches in length is already in place on the balloon. As the balloon is inflated, the stent expands opening the artery. The balloon is let down and removed, leaving the stent in place.

Dr Simon Walsh, who has been leading this pioneering work, described what was happening as the procedure unfolded.

"What we're doing is a minimally invasive procedure through the wrist artery passing a number of tubes up round to the heart arteries and implanting stents to relieve some blockages and narrowing there," he said.

"That means stretching the heart artery open using the balloons first and leaving a little bit of wire mesh in to prop the artery open and restoring blood flow."

A third cardiologist doctor who also assisted in the broadcast was Dr James Spratt, originally from Northern Ireland, but now performing similar heart procedures in Glasgow.

Twenty-four hours after watching Pat McConnell, a woman in her 80s, undergo the procedure, I spoke to her from her hospital bed at the Belfast City Hospital.

"I feel fine, in fact I feel very well," she said.

"I was aware of what was going on - it was a little painful at the start. I was more concerned about the TV cameras from San Francisco as I had no make-up on."

Image caption The procedure involves the use of stents in arteries

As the BBC left the ward, Mrs McConnell was informed that she was going home.

Every year 2,500 cardiac interventions are carried out in the Belfast health trust, with 500 valve procedures.

All of these help men and women lead more normal lives - in fact, for many, it keeps them alive.

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