YOUR HEALTH: Radiating the heart to stop a “ticking time bomb”

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ST. LOUIS, Missouri – When Patty Sweeney developed an abnormally rapid heart rhythm, she knew something was wrong.

"You could just feel like your heart was just pounding really hard, you know, like boom, boom, boom, like it was going to jump out of your chest."

Patty has ventricular tachycardia, a dangerously fast heart rate often caused by scar tissue in the heart.   When traditional treatments failed, she worried a heart attack was next.

"I was too young for that, you know? Just way too young for that."

Ventricular tachycardia is an abnormally fast heart rate that is like a ticking time bomb.   There are 350,000 sudden cardiac deaths in the U.S. each year

Then she found cardiologist Phillip Cuculich and radiation oncologist Cliff Robinson.

"These patients are oftentimes looking for any level of help, any hope," said Dr. Cuculich, a Washington University cardiologist.

The doctors are combining their expertise, shooting focused beams of radiation at the heart to destroy the scar tissue.

"This was definitely the first time that I had ever purposely radiated the heart," said Dr. Robinson, a Washington University radiation oncologist.

STUDY:   Dr. Phillip Cuculich says use of radiation as an alternative treatment came from the need to map the heart in a different way.   The procedure is noninvasive and it targets very specific parts of the heart.   Five patients were treated in the study.   This new procedure is faster than the original catheter ablation.   The five patients had a quicker recovery time and looked well the day after the surgery took place.   The study completed Phase I/ Phase II in 2017.   The next step is a multicenter trial that will begin after a follow up period with the patients.    The results of the study so far have been positive.   Arrhythmias have been observed to disappear almost immediately after the surgery has been performed.   The long term effects of the use of radiation are still unknown and being studied.

The first five patients in their study collectively had 6500 ventricular tachycardia episodes in the three months before treatment.   In the one year follow-up, that number dropped to four.

"It's almost this on/off switch where you go from having a problem to not having a problem and that flip, I think, is really impressive," explained Dr. Robinson.

It worked for Patty.

"I go to bed and sleep just fine now and I don`t lay there and worry."

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at

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