Skip to content

Heart Disease Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Hope for the Heart: Advances in Treatment

Today two-thirds of people survive their heart attacks, thanks to medical advances. Learn how some of these medical marvels evolved.
By
WebMD Feature

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.

Recommended Related to Heart Disease

Atherosclerosis: What’s Happening Inside Your Arteries?

Ever wish you could see inside your arteries? These blood vessels deliver oxygen-rich blood to every corner of our bodies. Maintaining the flow is essential to life and health. Atherosclerosis causes narrowing and hardening of the arteries, creating slowdowns in blood flow. Even worse, atherosclerosis can trigger sudden blood clots. Heart attacks and strokes are the often-deadly result. If we could see what was going on in our arteries, we might think twice about our lifestyle choices. Could...

Read the Atherosclerosis: What’s Happening Inside Your Arteries? article > >

"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.

1 | 2 | 3 | 4

Today on WebMD

x-ray of human heart
A visual guide.
atrial fibrillation
Symptoms and causes.
 
heart rate graph
10 things to never do.
heart rate
Get the facts.
 
empty football helmet
Article
red wine
Video
 
eating blueberries
Article
Simple Steps to Lower Cholesterol
Slideshow
 
Inside A Heart Attack
SLIDESHOW
Omega 3 Sources
SLIDESHOW
 
Salt Shockers
SLIDESHOW
lowering blood pressure
SLIDESHOW