Born with a heart defect, Mark Aubin was fitted with a conventional pacemaker when he was just 12 years old. Shaped similar to a 50p piece, the electronic device transmits electric signals to the right side of the heart, making it contract at regular intervals.
However, while it worked initially, over the years Mark’s heart began to beat erratically and by the age of 41, his heart was diagnosed as enlarged and working at only 15 per cent of its total capacity.
Under current guidelines, surgeons would have waited until he had developed advanced heart failure before fitting a second generation pacemaker.
Transformed: When exercising, Mark Aubin’s heart now works just like a healthy one
But in a pioneering operation at Birmingham’s Good Hope Hospital, surgeons decided to fit the pacemaker at a far earlier stage – with miraculous results. Not only has it enabled his heart to recover, it has also allowed it to work as well as a healthy heart.
‘This is the first case where surgeons have used a pacemaker to prevent heart failure and restore heart function,’ says Dr Francisco Leyva, the consultant cardiologist who conducted the operation.
‘Now his heart is pumping regularly and at a capacity of 58 per cent when at rest,’ says Dr Leyva. ‘When he is exercising that pumping capacity can go up to 80 per cent. That is similar to a healthy heart.’
Mark, a father to Finley, six, and Evie, three, felt the results of the operation immediately.
‘My face and lips looked healthier and I had much more energy,’ he says. ‘I used to feel my heart beating erratically and would check my pulse all the time, wondering if my time was up.
‘Now that worry has gone. I am back doing sports and I feel more capable and optimistic.’
In the operation, Mark’s old pacemaker was replaced with a second-generation pacemaker. Most pacemakers are smaller than a matchbox and sit just under the collar bone and have one or more leads which are placed into the heart via a vein.
The job of a pacemaker is to artificially take over the role of the heart’s natural pacemaker, the sinus node. Electrical impulses are sent by the pacemaker to stimulate the heart to contract and produce a heartbeat.
Most pacemakers work on demand while some send out impulses all the time – this is called fixed rate.
Cardiologists believe the operation, when conducted at this early stage, could prevent heart failure in thousands more patients with congenital heart conditions.
‘These pacemakers are normally fitted once a heart is already failing, at a point where the pumping capacity is low and people are very out of breath,’ explains Dr Leyva, who hopes to conduct a study on the procedure early next year.
‘At that stage, a pacemaker can make a heart work, but it cannot be restored to a healthy state. In Mark’s case, we fitted the pacemaker far earlier and his heart has been restored to physiological health,’ he says.
‘He is out running and cycling, which would not have been possible had the pacemaker been fitted later on. The degree of improvement is huge and that is exciting.’
Since the operation, Mark’s life has been transformed.
He is now working as associate director of corporate affairs at the Heart of England Foundation Trust in Birmingham. ‘I wanted to give something back to the people who gave me a lifeline,’ he says.