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Helping Asthma Patients Breathe Better

Updated: 05/07/2014 10:41 PM
Created: 05/07/2014 2:51 PM WDIO.com

Samantha Anderson greets countless customers at the service desk at L&M Supply in Grand Rapids.

She's got a great smile and helpful demeanor. She also has severe asthma.

"If I laugh too hard, it triggers an asthma attack. If I have an emotional day and I cry, it triggers an asthma attack. I wake up in the middle of the night, not able to breathe, three or four times a night," she shared with us at work last month.

Still, she takes this in stride. The 21-year-old from Bovey really enjoys the outdoors, kayaking in particular. "It's hard because I can't really be by myself or too far away from anyone, just in case. I also can't run very far before needing my inhaler. I'd like to run, for fun!"

She's on inhalers and medications, but they just weren't helping enough.

Her pulmonologist, Dr. Sonja Bjerk, suggested a new treatment, called bronchial thermoplasty.

We were invited in to see the procedure. Samantha's is only the second one performed at Essentia Health St. Mary's Medical Center.

Bjerk, along with a respiratory therapist, work together to use a catheter that delivers radio frequency waves directly to the airway muscle in the lungs. The burst of waves are about ten seconds long, and are called activations.

The activations heat the muscle up, which then will shrink it, although not enough for the naked eye to see during the surgery. Asthma patients like Samantha have airway muscles that are built up too much. 

This procedure will bring it down 50%, to normal levels, according to Travis Anderson, a specialist from Boston Scientific, who manufactures the equipment.

Samantha needed 85 activations. The number varies by patient, because everyone's lungs are a little big different. A program coordinator helps keep track of the activations, but they are also tracked by the medical device. 

Dr. Bjerk said it's exciting doing this procedure. "We have so many patients waiting for help. It's why we go into the field of medicine, to help people." She and another pulmonologist have had special training to operate with the equipment.

Boston Scientific told us only four sites in Minnesota can do bronchial thermoplasty with Essentia Health St. Mary's being one of them. The others are in the Twin Cities and in St. Cloud.

Samantha told us she was feeling great a few hours after the surgery. She can't wait to run! She will still need two more treatments, before the three-part surgery is complete. But Bjerk and the Boston Scientific reps said many patients feel the effects right away, after the first one.

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