'I'm able to live life again': Toronto doctors complete first-in-Canada heart procedure

A medical team in Toronto has succeeded in a Canadian first – unblocking a patient's arteries with the help of a device called the TandemHeart.

Robert Barton, 55, has 'new lease on life' after TandemHeart implant at Peter Munk Cardiac Centre

Robert Barton's heart was too weak for open heart surgery. So doctors asked him if he'd be willing to try something new: a TandemHeart implantation. (Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC)

Robert Barton's life recently took a "180-degree turn." He has a lot more energy, and he's able to do simple activities again like grocery shopping and visiting friends.

It's all thanks to a Toronto medical team that recently pulled off a Canadian first.

Barton, 55. is the first patient in the country to have a percutaneous coronary intervention — unblocking his arteries — in a non-surgical procedure with the help of something called a TandemHeart.

"It was extremely humbling, because you are the first guy to do this," said Barton.

"And in my thinking, it was, 'boy, this is opening the door for a lot of people.'"

A team of doctors and nurses worked on Robert Barton during his three-hour TandemHeart implantation in March. (Submitted)

In February, Barton was preparing for a planned kidney transplant. But shortly before his surgery, the doctors realized his heart had serious blockages and couldn't handle such an operation.

Cardiologist Dr. Christopher Overgaard said Barton's heart was too weak for open-heart surgery. So, the doctor asked if he'd be interested in trying something new.

'Fixing a car engine while it's running'

The TandemHeart takes over for a weak heart when doctors are working on it, Overgaard said.

It acts as an artificial pump, sucking blood out of the body – "energizing" it, then pumping it back in, said Alan Daly, the Canadian manager for TandemHeart.

The TandemHeart has been used many times in the United States, but this is the first time it's been used for a high-risk angioplasty in Canada. (CBC)

"That allowed the rest of the body to get all the perfusion it needed while we're working away on the chamber that actually is supposed to do that," Overgaard said.

"We're essentially fixing a car engine while it's running."

Dr. Christopher Overgaard, a cardiologist who worked on Barton's case, said he hopes to use the TandemHeart for more patients. (CBC)

Overgaard was part of a team of doctors and nurses at Toronto General Hospital's Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, who implanted the TandemHeart on March 1 for Barton's angioplasty. The procedure took about three hours, and Overgaard said the room was packed with medical staff and observers.

"It was very exciting. It was a little nerve-racking for all of us. Although we had used the device in models, we had never done it live in a real person," Overgaard said.

It all happened without surgery, so Barton was awake during the whole process – including the few times his heart flat-lined.

"When I actually felt that flatline, it was kind of a fuzzy head," he said.

The procedure, which took place at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, took about three hours. (Submitted)

But the TandemHeart did its job and all Barton felt was a bit of light-headedness.

"That was a weird feeling, but a phenomenal feeling that it did what it said it was going to do."

Will be used more in Canada

The TandemHeart has been used thousands of times in the United States, but this was the first time it had been used for an angioplasty procedure in Canada, according to Daly.

The TandemHeart had previously been used in Canada for other procedures, like electrophysiology work, he said.

Robert Barton says he's looking forward to taking part in activities with his wife again, like grocery shopping and shovelling snow. (CBC)

Overgaurd said he hopes to do more procedures with the TandemHeart.

"We expect to be using it more in this calendar year."

'Able to live life again'

Meanwhile, Barton says having the procedure has changed his life.

"I'm looking forward to going golfing again, heck, cutting the grass. I haven't been able to shovel snow in three years because I have no energy," he said.

"I'm able to live life again. There's a new lease on life. And how do you express that, how do you say, 'Thank you?' Thank you."