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13th July 2017

The heart tech that offers a new lease of life

When 76-year-old Maria Sugliano had the chance to be the first person to try a new technology for her heart failure, she didn’t hesitate to accept.

Four years later, Maria is happy to share the story of what she calls her “rebirth” after she had the small pacemaker-like device implanted in her chest wall, when the only other option ‒ which was too risky at her age anyway ‒ would have been a heart transplant.

It began on a day like any other, when the very active grandmother from Savona, Italy, was coming home from an outing and found that she couldn’t walk up the stairs to her flat. “I experienced a strange feeling and I wasn’t able to breathe properly,” she recalls. “I told my husband that something was wrong, so I went to see the cardiologist.”

An echocardiogram, which looked at the inner workings of Maria’s heart, confirmed that she had heart failure. “It was worse than I’d ever imagined. They’d thought initially that it was something external, but it wasn’t. My heart wasn’t working anymore. It couldn’t open and close by itself,” she explains.

For Maria, this was devastating news. She’d always been passionate about power walking, going to the theatre and cooking, and she was suddenly unable to do any of these things. She was also looking after her husband, who had been very ill for some time. “I’ve always been a healthy person, so when the doctor said unfortunately the only thing to do is a heart transplant, it was a big shock. I felt that I couldn’t live anymore,” she says.

The cardiologist told her that the only alternative was to try a new therapy undergoing studies in Milan. It would involve a minimally invasive operation to implant under her collar bone a small device which could be programmed according to her specific needs and would deliver electrical impulses to mimic the natural workings of the heart.

He urged Maria to go to Milan to see if she was a candidate for the new therapy, but she refused to leave her husband. “We’ve been together for 54 years. He’s the love of my life. I’d rather die with my husband than go to Milan,” she remembers telling the doctor. But when Maria’s husband died three months later, she decided it was time to go.

In Milan, she was hospitalised for about 20 days. “The therapy wasn’t ready but I was willing to wait. They implanted a pacemaker and a defibrillator and sent me home,” she says. “At home, I still wasn’t very well but I was much better than before. I was monitored closely and when I returned to Milan in October for a check, they told me they’d be ready with the new therapy in December.”

Maria felt completely calm going into the operation, which took place on 23 December 2011. “They sent me home for Christmas, and then I returned on January 2nd, and they activated the device. From that point, I was reborn,” Maria comments. “When I got home from the hospital, I felt fine. The first thing I did was bake cakes as I hadn’t been able to do it in time for Christmas.”

It took about a month for Maria to feel like her old self again. “I felt ten years younger,” she notes, adding that she’s been able to go back to her favourite activities, as well as volunteering two hours a day. “Honestly, I can’t feel it now. The stitches bothered me, but once they had been removed, I didn’t feel anything anymore. It’s a part of me. In fact, I thank it every day!” She only needs to go for a check-up once a year now, and she couldn’t be happier with her decision.