Saving hearts, making news

Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis, Atlanta and — Medford?

You might expect those big cities to have some of the best programs in the nation for treating heart attacks. You might be surprised to know Southern Oregon has one of the best, too.

Researchers studied Southern Oregon and nine other communities that had extraordinary success in treating some of the most deadly heart attacks. Local people who helped organize the treatment program at Rogue Valley Medical Center will speak in Portland Friday on the eve of Oregon's sixth annual cardiovascular symposium.

"Of the 10 centers across the United States, Medford was the smallest of them all," said Dr. Brian Gross, the cardiologist who helped organize the system that gets heart attack patients to treatment as quickly as possible.

Gross and other people who have been instrumental in what's known as the ASSET program will speak during panel discussions that precede the formal cardiovascular conference. Local participants also include Dr. Paul Rostykus, supervising physician for the region's ambulance services; Mary Barnum, an emergency room nurse who works in cardiac care; and Roy Vinyard, chief executive officer for Asante Health System, RVMC's parent company.

Physicians have known for years that patients whose cardiac arteries are blocked respond better the sooner the arteries can be opened. Getting patients to treatment quickly has been difficult in many communities because of the effort needed to coordinate ambulance services, hospital emergency rooms and the physicians who open blocked arteries. For patients to get the fastest treatment, all the players have to be willing to work together, Rostykus said.

"That's been the philosophy from the beginning," Rostykus said, "and that's what makes it work."

The program depends on emergency medical technicians diagnosing likely heart attacks in the field with computerized equipment that analyze heart rhythms. If the patient is having a certain kind of heart attack known as STEMI, EMTs can alert the hospital, and the cardiologist and the support team can be waiting for the patient when the ambulance rolls into the hospital.

For patients who have been treated with this strategy, the mortality rate has been 3.8 percent. Before the program began in 2003, the death rate for STEMI heart attacks was 11.8 percent nationally and 8.6 percent locally. Out of 262 patients under age 60 treated since 2003, only one died.

The message is clear, Gross said. "If you're under the age of 60, you don't die if we can get your artery open."

The program's success has been the subject of three papers published in national medical journals and three presentations at national medical conferences.

"The reason this stuff is making news it that it's been extraordinarily difficult to pull all the resources together," Gross said. "They all have their own board of directors and their own mission.

"We all have to be on the same page for this to work."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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