Healthy Hearts Are Thankful Hearts

Tiny implanted devices are keeping one Texas family alive

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

En Español

By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Nov. 23, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- This Thanksgiving, Donna Whitelock and her family expect to be sitting around the table, giving thanks for the most basic of all blessings: life.

Not all holidays have been this happy for the Whitelock family.

It had just started to snow in St. Louis on Christmas Day, 1975, when Donna's mother, Anita, collapsed in her bedroom. The family called an ambulance, and Anita's husband and four children followed in the family car.

"I rushed into the emergency room fully expecting them to say everything's under control, she's going to be fine, but they said, 'I'm sorry. Your mother didn't make it,' " Donna, then a college student, recalls.

Her mother had just turned 46 and was in good health. "Her post-mortem showed a healthy cardiovascular system, so they attributed it to some sort of arrhythmia," said Donna, now 49. Arrhythmias are abnormal heart rhythms.

Fast-forward to the day after Christmas, 2004, when Donna's brother, Tom, collapsed at the wheel of the car, his wife and children with him. He was 48.

"My brother died. We lost him," Donna said. "Again, he was a healthy young man with no indication of trouble other than a couple of almost-fainting spells. His regular physician couldn't find anything wrong with him."

A few months later, in April of 2005, Donna herself was out running and just "went down like a ton of bricks," she recalls. "It was like somebody turned the lights out." The lights did, however, come back on, and Donna went home instead of to the hospital.

She had a couple of almost-fainting spells after this but nothing as extreme as that first episode.

Oddly enough, it was Donna's gynecologist who started putting the threads together and referred her to a cardiologist. That referral probably saved her life and the lives of many others in her family.

After analyzing Donna's EKG, the cardiologist diagnosed Brugada Syndrome -- no doubt the same problem that had killed her mother and brother and possibly also a grandmother and other relatives.

The condition is genetic and affects about one in 5,000 people, explained Dr. Richard Stein, a spokesman for the American Heart Association and a cardiologist with Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

"It was a funny word a decade ago, but now it's part of every cardiologist's vocabulary," Stein said. "They think of it when they see a fainting spell."

People with Brugada Syndrome have an inherited arrhythmia that causes the bottom chambers of the heart to beat so fast that the blood cannot circulate efficiently. When this situation, called ventricular fibrillation, occurs, the person will faint and die from sudden cardiac death if the heart is not "reset."

"Ventricular fibrillation is basically death," Stein explained. "Unless it can be shocked back, it is irretrievable."

Donna Whitelock's electrophysiologist told her that she belonged to the very lucky few whose hearts were able to snap back into normal rhythm all on their own. "I literally came back from the jaws of death," she said. "It's a phenomenally small percentage."

There is no medication for people with Brugada Syndrome, but an implantable cardiac device called a defibrillator can save their lives. If the heart gets into trouble, the device, no bigger than the face of a man's watch, will deliver a shock to "reset" it.

"The devices are amazingly good," Stein said.

Donna Whitelock had such a device, made by Medtronic, implanted shortly after her diagnosis. She calls it her "angel on her shoulder."

The rest of the family has been checked, and now Donna's younger sister, her son (once a nationally ranked swimmer) and her daughter have all been fitted with Medtronic devices. Her niece is due to get one soon.

The surgery, Donna said, was a "piece of cake," and the device has had no effect on the family's active lifestyle. Donna runs about 10 miles a week, and her son, Aaron, clocks about seven miles a day. Like his mother, Aaron also once came close to death.

On Thanksgiving Day, Donna plans to celebrate with her son and her daughter and other members of the family at her daughter's home in Austin, Texas. Donna's younger sister can't make it, but the family will say grace together over the phone.

"It's a remarkable thing to be thankful for. We had all lived waiting for the other shoe to fall," Donna said. "No more of those awful phone calls -- 'your brother died, your mother died.' How absolutely wonderful that it stops here."

More information

Visit the Ramon Brugada Senior Foundation for more on this condition.

SOURCES: Donna Whitelock, Austin, Texas; Richard Stein, M.D., cardiologist, Beth Israel Medical Center, New York City, and national spokesman, American Heart Association; photo contributed

Last Updated: