The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Local Business

September 10, 2012

Breathe a little easier

New hospital procedure reduces frequency, severity of asthma attacks

ANDERSON, Ind. — In 2001, Ana Herndon was diagnosed with asthma, bronchitis and, later on, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD.

She could no longer visit public places because she struggled to breathe around strong scents such as cologne, perfume, candles or cigar smoke. She would begin coughing so severely that she would become sick. Her husband had to do the Christmas shopping because she couldn’t handle the holiday scents that engulf malls.

Herndon, 66, struggled to do everyday things, like sweep her house, carry groceries or play with her great-granddaughter, who she is raising. Her lungs just wouldn’t let her breathe in enough air to be even moderately active.

“When I would walk from the parking lot to my doctor’s office, I’d have to sit down to catch my breath before I could talk to him,” said the rural Middletown resident.

She depended on multiple daily medications, inhalers, injections and steroids.

But a recent procedure she underwent at Saint John’s Health System changed her life.

Starting in June, Herndon underwent bronchial thermoplasty, a minimally invasive procedure for people struggling with moderate to severe persistent asthma. It is not a cure, but has a lasting effect on symptoms. It is available to those 18 and older.

With the three-step procedure, Herndon can keep up with her great-granddaughter, strong scents don’t bother her as much, and she has been able to stay off most of her medications. She has lost 29 pounds.

Three months ago, Saint John’s began offering the procedure which has only been available for about a year, said Dr. David Mares, a pulmonologist and a member of Saint John’s Medical Staff. Saint John’s is one of three hospitals in Indiana offering the treatment, Mares said.

The technique involves giving patients an anesthetic to put them to sleep.

“We stick a camera into their lungs and selectively heat up the lining of the airway with a radio frequency wave so we can cause the muscle around the airway to shrink,” Mares said. “That technique has a major impact because those are the muscles that cause wheezing and shortness of breath.”

Shrinking the muscles helps reduce their ability to tighten up and cause shortness of breath, he said.

The procedure includes three sessions spread out by three weeks each. Different parts of the lungs are treated. Each session lasts about an hour.

Bronchial thermoplasty has proved to decrease the frequency and severity of asthma, which can be fatal, Mares said.

“It results in less medication necessary to control the disease,” he said. “It results in fewer days missed of work, school or other activities. It results in fewer illnesses and fewer visits to the emergency department. And it decreases the likelihood of being admitted to the hospital with asthma.”

The first patients whose progress has been studied underwent the procedure at least five years ago, Mares said.

“No one has ever required a repeat,” Mares said. “It appears to have a long-term benefit.”

Before the procedure, Herndon took two Xolair shots a month, which alone cost $4,300. She also took 40 to 60 milligrams of prednisone a day, used a Spiriva inhaler once a day, Advair twice a day and an emergency Combivent inhaler four times a day. She often also had to take antibiotics and cough medicine.

Now she only uses an emergency inhaler and Advair sometimes, along with some cough medicine. But there are no more shots or steroids or antibiotics. Her monthly medicine bill dropped from $225 to $100.

“I’ve been able to shoot hoops with my 15-year-old son,” Herndon said. “He said, ‘Oh my god, Mom. I can’t remember you ever doing this.’ He doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t sick.”

Herndon is able to regularly play with her great grand-daughter, and even traveled to Tennessee where she walked and spent time in public places.

Saint John’s has treated two people so far, including Herndon, and there are five to seven more patients awaiting insurance approval.

Since the procedure is relatively new to the medical field, it is hard to get it approved and covered by insurance, Mares said. But he expects major improvements in that arena starting next year.

Without insurance treatment would cost a patient about $10,000.

Herndon hopes insurance companies realize how helpful and cost effective the procedure can be for patients.

“I would recommend this to anybody,” she said. “I can’t imagine not wanting to breathe better.”

Find Melanie D. Hayes on Facebook and @MelanieDHayes on Twitter or call 648-4250.

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