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Robot-assisted surgery helps singer get back in rhythm

Tech used at St. Francis makes treatments for arrhythmias safer and more accurate.

HARTFORD, Conn. — Robot-assisted surgery has grown in popularity in some areas of medicine, like prostate surgery, while it’s still slow to catch on in others, like in treating heart arrhythmias.  

St. Francis Hospital in Hartford is one of the few, and maybe the only one in New England, that’s been doing robot-assisted cardiac catheter ablations for years.  The procedure is now called Stereotaxis – named after the company that developed the technology.

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Kerri Powers is a Stereotaxis success story.  She is a touring musician, but in 2010, that tour took a detour.

“I was supposed to travel to California to do a festival with Lyle Lovett, and I was really excited about it, I went into a really bad arrhythmia,” she said, “I could feel that [my heart rate] had accelerated, but it was more of a pounding sensation, like, I could literally see it pounding out of my chest.”

Her arrhythmia is called supraventricular tachycardia, or S.V.T.  It was treated by Dr. Joseph Dell’Orfano at St. Francis Hospital.  He performed a cardiac catheter ablation, which removes defective heart tissue that causes arrhythmias by either burning it or freezing it with a balloon.  It’s done by pushing a wire up through a leg vein into the heart.  It’s a safe procedure, but could always be safer.

  “Normally, when we're going into the heart with these catheters there, they've got some stiffness to them because we need to push them to where they're going,” said Dr. Dell’Orfano, “and you know, there's always a worry that you're going to perforate a structure cause internal bleeding or damage or something like that.”

However, Stereotaxis uses a much more flexible wire.

“First of all, the cool thing about our robotic system is the catheter is literally like a piece of spaghetti,” said Dr. Dell’Orfano, “you can't really push this catheter through any structure because it's so soft.”

It’s also guided by magnets, which can allow for millimeter precision. 

“It's really nimble, and you can move it to places that you can't get to with a traditional stiff catheter,” said Dr. Dell’Orfano.

Stereotaxis can treat lots of arrhythmias, including the potentially deadly ventricular tachycardia.  Dr. Dell’Orfano said the flexible wire makes it easier to keep contact with the heart tissue, which is always moving.

Kerri can vouch for it. She said she’s been nearly symptom free since then.

“Right away, I felt the difference,” she said, “I still feel that little feeling sometimes if I skip a beat, but it is nothing by comparison to what I went through. I feel like I'm renewed like a new person on some level, you know?”

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Tim Lammers is an anchor at FOX61 News. He can be reached at Tlammers@fox61.com. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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