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New alternative to open-heart surgery, a lifesaver for Jacksonville patients

News4Jax reporter Aaron Farrar spoke with a Jacksonville man who recently had the cutting-edge procedure.
News4Jax reporter Aaron Farrar spoke with a Jacksonville man who recently had the cutting-edge procedure.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A Jacksonville man was having heart issues but was too high of a risk for surgery.

He was left without option until a cutting-edge procedure offered a glimmer of hope, and ultimately saved his life.

The procedure, the Impella Heart, is the first of its kind in Jacksonville and is the world’s smallest heart pump. It is an alternative to open-heart surgery.

Local doctors have used it to treat more than 500 people and say it can help save even more.

John Kopelousos is 85 years old and a retired lawyer for two years now. For more than a month, he had heart problems and knew something was not right.

“I started having trouble breathing,” Kopelousos said. “I couldn’t lift my left arm very much. My heart wasn’t working very well.”

Doctors told Kopelousos he had blocked arteries and his heart was weak. Those problems combined with his age made him a high-risk patient. Open heart surgery would have been too dangerous.

“I thought I was a dead man,” Kopelousos. “I fully expected to die.”

But there was another option. Kopelousos was the perfect match for the Impella heart pump. It helps people like him with weak hearts and it clears arteries.

The pump helps the heart function the way it should while giving time for doctors to repair blood vessels and clear paths to the heart.

“In those patients, we can put the pump in the heart to help them until they recover,” interventional cardiologist Dr. Samer Garas said. “They can get their medication and so forth, or we can fix their arteries. If they’re coming out with a big heart attack it helps the heart with the recovery. It helps us fix the arteries or we can put stents in to fix all of the heart coronary arteries in ways that we could not before.”

Garas is the medical director of the Cardiovascular Service Line for Ascension St. Vincent’s. He performed the procedure on John in late August.

The tube from the pump inserts in the leg, chest, or arm. Garas said the quick procedure is painless. Kopelousos left the hospital the next day.

“I haven’t had any pain,” Kopelousos said. “I haven’t had any discomfort. My left arm is now working. I have not felt this good in years,” he said. “What can I say? I am the luckiest person you’ve ever talked to.”

Kopelousos said he is looking forward to traveling with his wife of 43 years and spending time with his six adult children, without any physical limitations.

Garas encourages people to talk with their doctor and weigh options. There are cases when a patient may not qualify for open-heart surgery, like Kopelousos. Others may feel open heart surgery is something they are more comfortable with and qualify for.

Garas stresses getting second opinions.

“We are able to do things and help patients like that have their lives back,” Garas said.

About the Author:

Weekend morning reporter and multi-media journalist.