Catheter Cryoablation: A Patient's Story

Sometimes it would happen when she'd try to do something as simple as bend down to pick up a laundry basket. Or perhaps it would come on when she would walk up a flight of stairs. Between the racing heart, shortness of breath and light-headedness, she would often be exhausted for the rest of the day with a pulse soaring up to 180 beats per minute.
"It would wipe me out," said Stacey Hodkiewicz, a first grade teacher with three small children of her own. "It could happen anywhere, anytime."
Diagnosed with supraventricular tachycardia at the age of 10, Hodkiewicz dealt with the generally non-life threatening but nevertheless frightening and disruptive condition for about 20 years. But its grip on her quality of life was unclenched in August 2004, when the 31-year-old DeForest woman became the first UW Hospital patient to receive a new procedure that involves freezing targeted portions of heart tissue to correct irregular heart beats called arrhythmias.
Greater Degree of Precision
Catheter cryoablation is performed via a catheter inserted through a vein to the heart while the patient is sedated but conscious. The procedure allows physicians a greater degree of precision, especially when working around critical structures in the heart that distribute electrical impulses. By using the tip of the catheter to moderately freeze an area of the heart to about -25 degrees Celsius, physicians are allowed to test heart tissue without permanently damaging it.
The cooling of the tissue allows doctors to test the area about to be "ablated," or destroyed by freezing it all the way down to about -75 degrees Celsius. If it's not the precise tissue area that is causing the arrhythmia, the doctor can restore the cells to their normal temperature and function. That's not possible with a more traditional method called radiofrequency ablation, which uses heat to destroy heart tissue.
"Catheter cryoablation offers a significant advantage in that we can freeze areas of the heart where we normally would be reluctant to give a traditional (radiofrequency) burn," says Dr. Douglas Kopp, a UW Health cardiologist who performed the procedure. UW Hospital and Clinics was the first hospital in Madison to use catheter cryoablation, joining a growing number of hospitals across the county.
Traditional Methods Still Effective
Dr. Kopp emphasized that cryoablation is just one method that can be used to treat arrhythmias in certain areas of the heart, and that radiofrequency ablation is still effective in treating many patients.
"I view (cryoablation) as an additional tool in our toolbox," Dr. Kopp said. "It gives an added degree of safety and confidence in selected patients."
However, he is hopeful that cryoablation will be a great benefit in treating pediatric patients, whose small hearts require that lesions be kept as small as possible.
The relatively non-invasive cryoablation procedure allows patients to go home the same day and resume normal activities shortly thereafter. Two days after her procedure, Stacey Hodkiewicz was driving herself around town and feeling optimistic that cryoablation has eliminated her arrhythmia, as well as her need to take medication every day to control it.
"So far I can feel my heart skipping a beat, but I can feel my heart saying, 'No, you can't do what you used to do,'" Hodkiewicz said.