BY SARA BAIRD – Maui resident Leslie Granat is one of the first wave of patients in the nation to undergo a cutting-edge procedure that involves freezing part of the heart in order to cure a potentially life-threatening cardiac rhythm disorder.

Granat, 68, suffered from an irregular heartbeat known as Atrial Fibrillation for nearly two years before she journeyed to Phoenix seeking the expertise at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in March 2011. In addition to her heart condition, Granat is also being treated for an artery blockage in her lungs.

“I feel so fortunate to have found this new, non-invasive procedure at St. Joseph’s, because there is no surgical treatment of a-fib available on the islands. Before the surgery, I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom without gasping for air. Now I can work on my breathing without worrying about my heart,” says Granat, who retired from New York to Maui and is now a watercolorist by hobby.

Atrial Fibrillation, the most common heart-rhythm disorder in the United States, occurs when the heart’s upper two chambers lose their natural rhythm and beat erratically. The condition currently affects 3 million Americans and can lead to strokes and heart failure if left untreated.

Dr. Wilber Su, St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center

With the new procedure called Cryoballoon Ablation that is offered at St. Joseph’s, a catheter is delivered to the heart through a vein in the leg, to freeze the abnormal electricity-conducting tissue around the heart’s pulmonary vein with coolant. When the right area is found, the tissue is frozen to -80 degrees Celsius to destroy—or ablate—it, curing the electrical disturbance in the heart and restoring a healthy heart rhythm.

Granat’s doctor at St. Joseph’s, Wilber Su, MD, says the value of the new Cryoballoon Ablation over existing ablation methods is that in some cases it can enable physicians to isolate the pulmonary veins via a simpler, more efficient, and most importantly, safer approach.

The procedure, which typically takes approximately two to three hours to complete, also offers significant advantages over alternative treatments such as medications, which only work in about 40 percent of patients, or radiofrequency ablation—a method that uses heat to destroy heart tissue.

“Leslie’s existing lung condition, pulmonary embolism, made her Atrial Fibrillation condition complex and too difficult to treat using traditional ablation methods,” says Dr. Su.

“In my practice, most patients require only an overnight stay in the hospital, with minimal recovery time and often avoid the long term use of anti-arrhythmic drugs and ultimately can even stop blood thinners. With the minimally invasive Cryoballoon Ablation procedure, we were able to cure Leslie’s heart condition while avoiding riskier and more intensive surgeries. This is an exciting time for those of us who have previously been challenged to cure this condition without the right tools.”

St. Joseph’s is the only hospital in the southwest United States to offer the procedure and is also a training center for other doctors who want to learn about the technique. Dr. Su has performed more Cryoballoon Ablations than any physician in the United States since the FDA approved the technology several months ago and is one of an active teaching faculty for this new procedure in the United States.