In the late 1950s, when Douglas James, MD, was studying medicine at Harvard, it was still the Dark Ages of heart disease treatment. The rate of coronary deaths in the U.S. was steadily rising, and physicians had little practical wisdom for students like James as to how to save heart patients' lives.
"It was something that you knew about and you didn't do anything about," says James, an associate professor and former chief of cardiology at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H.
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"We used a lot of morphine and kept people comfortable," he says.
What a difference a half century makes. Doctors now have many marvelous tools on hand to keep an ailing heart pumping, and the death rate from coronary disease continues the steep slide it started after peaking in 1963.
Yet it would be hard to point to one breakthrough that deserves all the credit for the improved standard of care we have today. Every innovation has built on another before it, and often the innovators have been ridiculed for breaking with tradition. It has been a slow and difficult climb towards the relatively enlightened era of 21st-century advances in treating heart disease.
One early pioneer was a doctor named Werner Forssmann. In 1929, as a surgical resident at a small country hospital in Germany, Forssmann became interested in delivering medicine directly to the heart through a catheter. He performed the first experiment on himself, pushing a catheter through a vein in his arm and into his heart. He then walked down to the hospital's basement and took an X-ray picture to prove that the catheter was in there. In other experiments, he used a catheter to inject contrast dye into the heart so it could be more clearly seen on X-ray film.
Many in the medical community were outraged by Forssmann's work, presumably for its daring nature, and he shrank from doing any more research. Others seized upon his idea, however, and used catheters to measure pressures and oxygen levels within the heart, which filled big blanks in science's understanding of how the heart pumps blood, and how disease affects its function. In 1956, Forssmann shared a Nobel Prize with Dickinson Richards and Andre Cournand, doctors at New York Hospital who studied heart function using catheters.