Regional Medical Center in Anniston has added several types of heart surgery procedures in the last two years, most recently in the spring. Unlike traditional heart surgery, which requires the opening of a patient's chest, these other procedures require less significant surgical methods but achieve the same results. Some health experts say minimally invasive heart surgeries shorten recovery times for many patients and are a good tool in the fight against the state's high rate of heart disease.
Dr. Masumi Yamamuro, a cardiothoracic surgeon at RMC who performs heart surgeries, said a minimally invasive type of coronary artery bypass surgery was added to the hospital's services in the spring. Coronary artery bypass surgery involves bypassing clogged arteries to prevent heart attacks. RMC is the only hospital that performs heart surgery in Calhoun County.
Yamamuro, who required several months of specialized training for the procedure, said traditional coronary artery bypass surgery requires surgeons to split open the patient's chest and cut through bone.
"But now we don't have to cut through the bone, we can just go between the ribs," Yamamuro said.
Specifically, Yamamuro uses specialized tools to cut a 3-inch incision in the left side of a patient and then spreads several of the ribs to reach the heart.
"When you don't have to cut the bone that means more stability for the chest, which makes breathing after surgery easier and makes recovery easier," Yamamuro said.
Yamamuro said patients who receive the procedure feel much better after a week and are nearly completely recovered in four weeks. In contrast, patients who receive traditional bypass surgery require two months to recuperate, he said.
In the last two years, RMC has added other minimally invasive heart surgery services, all performed by Yamamuro, including aortic valve replacement and the MAZE Procedure, used to treat irregular contraction of the upper, low-pressure chamber of the heart called the atrium. Both procedures forgo the traditional method of opening up the chest to reach the heart and use small incisions instead.
"We're always looking for opportunities in breakthroughs in technology and procedures," said Todd Corona, director of heart and vascular services at RMC.
Yamamuro noted that minimally invasive procedures, while effective, are not for every patient and will not phase out traditional surgery for every type of heart surgery procedure.
Dr. Trey Brunsting, a cardiovascular surgeon who performs minimally invasive and robotic surgeries at UAB Hospital, said minimally invasive procedures are growing in use.
"We are progressively doing more and more things in a smaller and smaller fashion," Brunsting said, referring to the smaller incisions of minimally invasive surgery. "Patient recovery for smaller surgery is definitely enhanced ... there is less blood loss and less pain and patients get better a lot quicker."
Brunsting said demand for heart surgery has grown along with the state's rate of heart disease.
Corona said RMC will perform 200 heart surgeries by the end of the year, which he said is a high rate, given the size of the population.
"Heart disease in this area is pretty high," Corona said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease causes one in four deaths in Alabama — the leading cause of death in the state. Also, CDC statistics show Alabama had the fifth highest rate of coronary heart disease among the states in 2010, the most recent statistics available.
Brunsting said he expects minimally invasive procedures to grow in the coming years to help combat heart disease in the state.
"Certainly, the less invasive procedures are likely to become more prevalent," Brunsting said. "We can't use them on all patients, but it's more tools in our tool box."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.