Nine years ago, Lee Wielansky was one of millions of Americans suffering from atrial fibrillation, a very dangerous type of irregular, rapid heartbeat. Afib increases the chances for blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
His condition had gotten to the point where he needed a catheter ablation, an invasive procedure in which a thin, flexible tube is guided through the femoral vein up to the heart where a tiny electrode tip is used to burn off cells causing the irregular heartbeat.
“It wasn’t the easiest of surgeries,” Lee says about the lengthy procedure. “I thought my life was over.”
Luckily, the ablation was successful and he hasn’t had further problems. But that hasn’t stopped Lee, who serves on the board of The Foundation of Barnes-Jewish Hospital, from trying to find a better treatment. That’s why he and his wife, Laurie, made a gift to create the Innovation and Collaboration Fund at the Foundation. The fund supports the work of Phillip Cuculich, MD, a cardiologist who specializes in heart rhythm, and Clifford Robinson, MD, a radiation oncologist. The two have developed a noninvasive radiotherapy procedure that many experts believe will be a game changer in the way irregular heartbeats are treated.
It employs stereotactic radiation, a high-powered beam typically used to blast away cancer cells. However, in this unique use of radiation, the high-energy particle stream is aimed directly at a patient’s heart to destroy cells causing the irregular beats.
“My surgery took six hours. Now they can do it in minutes,” he says. “They talk about someone going over at their lunch hour and then going back to work. It’s remarkable what they’ve done.”
The couple’s investment is driven by Lee’s personal experience. “My wife and I are interested in making an impact,” says Lee, an engaged community philanthropist. “I’m a big believer in giving back. I’ve been fortunate in what I’ve done and accomplished. We have to give back in life to accomplish things and to show appreciation for what we have.”