Jessica Culbert was desperate for medical treatment to fix a defect in her heart’s electrical circuitry that caused an abnormally fast heartbeat. The defect, called supraventricular tachycardia, at times pushed Jessica’s heart rate as high as 240 beats per minute. She never knew when it might come on or how long it would last.
It frequently landed her in the hospital near her home outside Tulsa, Oklahoma, over the past 2 years. At age 29, the mother of 2 young boys was preparing to undergo heart ablation, a minimally invasive procedure that uses a catheter to destroy rogue cells responsible for abnormal rhythms.
Then in February, Jessica found out she was pregnant. Her specialist called off the ablation because radiation would be needed. X-ray technology called fluoroscopy allows doctors to see moving images of the heart in real time so they can guide the catheters. But radiation could harm a developing fetus.
Jessica’s doctor also took her off anti-arrhythmic medication because it, too, posed a risk to her unborn child. The medication was not working well for Jessica, but the prospect of not having it terrified her.
Women in Jessica’s situation are in a tough spot. Not only are the treatments potentially dangerous to the baby, so is the condition itself.
“It was scary. Nobody wanted to touch me,” Jessica said. “We talked to everybody – people in Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Las Vegas, which is where we are from. Everyone said the risks were too high, that radiation could cause miscarriage and other issues.”
Her husband, Devan, scoured the Internet and found a news story about Dr. John Clark, director of the Pediatric Arrhythmia Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. Dr. Clark performs about 100 cardiac ablations a year without radiation, on children and adults. In 2012, he successfully performed cardiac ablation on a pregnant woman from Strongsville without using radiation.
Dr. Clark is an early adopter of a 3-D mapping system that allows him to guide the catheter without using X-ray imaging. He started using 3-D imaging routinely in 2005.
“When we found that article, we said we need this guy,” Jessica said. “Devan called and explained how bad my condition was. I couldn’t drive anymore, my heart rate was causing me to lose my vision and I was having really bad chest pains.”
After talking with Jessica’s doctors, Dr. Clark and his team set her up for a procedure on March 13, and arranged for accommodations at Ronald McDonald House of Akron.
Dr. Clark said Jessica had 2 different types of supraventricular tachycardia. He zeroed in on circuits of her heart that were conducting electricity abnormally.
During a procedure called cryoablation, Dr. Clark maneuvered the catheter tip to the cells causing the electrical misfire and froze them at about 112 degrees Fahrenheit below zero to destroy them.
Jessica had to lie awake and be still during the 3-hour procedure, because sedation and anesthesia could harm the baby.
Jessica was only the second pregnant woman to undergo the procedure by Dr. Clark. He believes ablations without fluoroscopy should become a standard of care around the country, due to long-term health concerns of exposure to medical radiation.
Jessica, too, hopes that heart specialists around the country will adopt the practice.
“I’m appreciative of what he’s doing and hope more doctors do the same thing,” she said.
“Everything went well and I feel great.”
On her way home after a week at Akron Children’s, she savored a sweet tea, which had been off limits for 2 years because of the caffeine.
Now healthy, she looks forward to restarting a painting party business and singing at her church. She loves to sing but had to stop because it caused her heart rate to shoot up.
“I’m grateful for how well it turned out,” she said. “I wondered why God allowed us to get pregnant right when I needed my heart surgery. Now I know. We needed Dr. Clark. A lot of good came from it. I feel that God brought us to that hospital.”
Learn more about the procedure in this video.