IN JUNE 1997 SARAH CLAIR BURKE OF MONAHANS got just about the worst results a patient can get from a heart-stress test. Moments after stepping off the treadmill at Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, she began suffering severe chest pains. Burke thought it was indigestion, but her doctor was worried about angina. He gave her nitroglycerin and ordered more tests. During a thallium scan—an imaging technique that allows doctors to study blood flow through the heart muscle—Burke suffered further symptoms of a diseased heart, including intense aching in her arm muscles and jaw. Finally, doctors conducted an angiogram and found six severely obstructed blood vessels in her heart.
At 64, Burke was no stranger to the knife, having undergone a C-section, throat surgery, and a hysterectomy. But the prospect of open-heart surgery—the only sure solution for this degree of coronary-artery disease—concerned her. Coronary artery bypass graft (CABG, or “cabbage”) is one of surgery’s most successful and venerated procedures but also one of the most barbaric. Burke knew that firsthand from having observed what the operation had done to her husband, William, back in 1989. “He had a lot of pain afterward,” she recalls, “and he was depressed.”
Her cardiac surgeon, Sudhir Srivastava of Cardiac Surgical Associates in Odessa, proposed an alternative, one that had not existed when her husband had undergone open-heart surgery: minimally invasive, port-access coronary artery bypass surgery. The procedure, which had been sanctioned by the Food and Drug Administration for less than a year, promised a patient like Burke the needed revascularization of her heart with considerably less of the invasiveness, trauma, and post-operative pain associated with CABG. Instead of splaying the patient’s chest out with a foot-long sternotomy to perform the necessary vessel grafting, the surgeon operated with customized instruments through a small four-and-a-half-inch port, cut out of one of her ribs on the left side of her torso.
Benign as it sounded, port-access CABG was not without risks. Some of Srivastava’s colleagues at Medical Center Hospital and representatives of the technique’s inventors, Heartport, a biomedical device company in Redwood City, California, were nervous about using it for the quintuple bypass Burke required. The technology (trademarked by Heartport as Port-Access) had never been applied so ambitiously. Could even a skilled surgeon like Srivastava accomplish a successful quintuple bypass through an incision shorter than the length of his hand?
The 49-year-old native of India believed so. He understood the worries but thought that Burke was still a perfect candidate. Despite the number of clogged arteries she would have to have bypassed through grafts, the blood vessels in her legs and stomach were sturdy enough to withstand the complex catheterization required by the procedure. Also, as a diabetic, whose wounds tend to heal slowly, she would benefit from the diminished trauma. Beyond that, Srivastava—who had gone through the training but not yet performed the operation—believed the procedure could handle five-vessel sur-gery. “It’s like with all new techniques,” says the surgeon, echoing the sentiments of an earlier generation of groundbreaking Texas heart surgeons like Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley. “There always comes a time for a first.”
Burke had long since made the decision. “I had everything to gain and nothing to lose,” she says. “I’d already put it in the Lord’s hands. And I truly felt like it would be a good thing to be involved in a new procedure that might save a lot of other diabetics who have heart problems a lot of pain.”
So on June 26, 1997, Sarah Clair Burke and Sudhir Srivastava quietly entered the annals of medical history as patient and surgeon in the first minimally invasive quintuple bypass performed anywhere. Not that the event carried the aura of a medical epoch. Indeed, one of the most striking things about this revolutionary new surgery is how undramatic it is.
TRADITIONAL CORONARY BYPASS SURGERY has always represented modern surgery at its most muscular and sensational: the cracking of the chest, the spurting blood, and the exposed, beating heart. This high drama comes from the need to connect the patient to a heart-lung machine (cardiopulmonary bypass machine, or CPB), which pumps and breathes for him during the operation. First employed by Philadelphia doctor John Gibbon in 1953, after decades of arduous experimentation, the CPB revolutionized cardiac surgery by allowing heart surgeons to stop the heart and clear the pericardium of blood for a substantial period of time, enabling them to perform complex procedures ranging from valve repair and replacement to CABG and heart transplantation. As momentous as the CPB was for heart surgery, it created its own reign of terror by requiring a full sternotomy, resulting in massive trauma to muscle and bone and a lengthy, painful recovery. Additionally, a CPB, it was discovered, can cause medical problems for patients: Attachment to it can be especially hard on patients with pulmonary insufficiency, kidney disease, or a history of stroke. Even as other forms of surgery became more patient-friendly in the late eighties through video-enhanced endoscopy—the use of tiny, fiber-optic imaging devices that could be inserted into the body through a small incision to provide the surgeon with a full view of an organ—cardiac surgery remained something of a draconian throwback simply because of the surgical mandates of the CPB.
With port-access CABG, a heart-lung machine is still used but with a lot less mess. The patient is attached to the CPB via a series of catheters and cannulas that are painstakingly threaded through veins in the legs and stomach. Once a patient like Burke is safely supported by the CPB, the heart bypass graft is accomplished through the same small port through which the CPB was engineered. The surgeon views his work on a video monitor via a fiber-optic probe that displays the unexposed sides of the heart. To further minimize trauma and pain, the easily acces-sible left mammary artery is the vessel of first choice for the graft; if additional vessel tissue is needed, as in Burke’s surgery, arteries from an arm and