Hospital shares Ga. patient's heart procedure on Twitter

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Robert Peacock is no celebrity, but his heart may be on its way to becoming one.

St. Vincent's Medical Center is using the online message/conversation site Twitter, to display what is going on in the Cath Lab at the medical center. Robert Peacock has an irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation. On Thursday Feb. 11  John Pemberton/ Morris News Service
John Pemberton/ Morris News Service
St. Vincent's Medical Center is using the online message/conversation site Twitter, to display what is going on in the Cath Lab at the medical center. Robert Peacock has an irregular heartbeat, atrial fibrillation. On Thursday Feb. 11

The Waycross, Ga., man allowed St. Vincent's Medical Center in Jacksonville to "tweet" his heart procedure Thursday. That is, a hospital representative gave a snip-by-snip account of the procedure live on the social-networking site Twitter.

For the occasion, he insisted on star treatment. 

"My limo wasn't waiting for me like I asked for," Peacock, 61, quipped as he waited to be wheeled into the operating room. "I don't know what a key grip is, but I want one."

No dice there, but he did get a small army of medical workers, not to mention a new lease on life.

Peacock's procedure stands as the second in the Jacksonville area to be covered live on Twitter. Last November, St. Vincent's published real-time descriptions of a woman's double-breast mastectomy. 

The patient declined to be identified, and no direct media coverage was allowed.

The subject of Thursday's updates was a catheter ablation, a procedure that corrects a patient's irregular heartbeat. About six months ago, doctors diagnosed Peacock with the debilitating condition, known as atrial fibrillation, after he started having shortness of breath and chest pain during daily walks.

Guidelines issued by the American Heart Association recommend surgery only when medications have failed to control a patient's heart rhythm. About 10 percent of all people with atrial fibrillation are candidates for going under the knife, said Saumil Oza, the cardiac electrophysiologist who operated on Peacock.

In Peacock's case, medications helped a little, but he still felt lethargic. A gregarious boat salesman and weekend farmer, he looks forward to needing fewer medications, particularly the blood thinners.

Although proponents believe that the $40,000 catheter procedure extends patients' lives and reduces their stroke risk, the jury is still out on its effectiveness, Oza acknowledged. A double-blind, randomized clinical trial, the gold standard in medicine, is being conducted now to determine just that.

How Thursday's Twitter session came together: St. Vincent's marketing people wanted to highlight the atrial fibrillation unit during February, which is designated as American Heart Month. So, they enlisted some of the hospital's doctors to help them find a patient with the stomach to have his heart featured on Twitter.

"Why not? If it'll help somebody," was Peacock's reply.

In a far corner of the operating room Thursday, a Web producer and a cardiac expert with St. Vincent's huddled over a laptop. They chronicled the procedure largely from a script that Oza had signed off on a day earlier. 

The procedure uses radio frequencies to scar parts of the heart. The scars block signals sent from a quartet of veins in the left atrium, signals that cause the heart to go haywire. The entire procedure is done using a catheter inserted into a patient's groin while the patient is anesthetized.

Given several hours of time to fill and only a page and a half of script, Candy Bowen, the Web producer, sprinkled in descriptions about atrial fibrillation and gave health tips. Meanwhile, in the waiting room, Peacock's family watched the updates on a wide-screen television.

"It's some reassurance that everything's going well," Melissa Peacock said.

A few minutes before 6 p.m., this message popped up on Twitter: "Mr. P says Hi, and is responsive." And then a minute later: "Mr. P has been informed that his family has been updated. And he's smiling."

Contact jeremy.cox@jacksonville.com or (904) 359-4083

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