Monday, September 16, 2013

Massachusetts General Hospital offers specialized operation to remove chronic blood clots from pulmonary arteries

Program now second largest in the country to treat patients

John Price and his wife Jean

Three years ago, John Price clutched the handlebars of his bike and attempted to slowly maneuver it up a short hill. His chest was tight, his heart racing and the near constant sense of being out of breath worsened with every step.

An avid runner and cyclist, the now 62-year-old Price had first noticed symptoms about four years earlier when his seven-minute miles began to steadily turn into nine- and 10-minute miles. “And then at one point I couldn’t even jog 50 yards without being out of breath,” he says. “It finally got to the point where it was so bad that I could barely breathe.”

Over the course of the next several months, a barrage of clinical tests to check for cardiac deficiencies all revealed that the Smith Point, New York resident had a healthy heart. Yet his symptoms persisted – and soon worsened. Finally, Price says, a specialist diagnosed him with pulmonary hypertension (PH), a lung disorder in which blood clots line the arteries in the lungs, restricting blood flow and causing blood pressure in the arteries to rise significantly.

The diagnosis, although overwhelming, was a relief, Price says. “It was actually a god-send because they found something wrong because they had been focusing on the heart and luckily they checked the lungs and found the clots,” he says.

Price was referred to Massachusetts General Hospital where he learned he was a candidate for pulmonary thromboendarterectomy (PTE), a highly specialized operation to remove these chronic blood clots. Without surgery, patients who have this life-threatening disease will likely develop progressive shortness of breath so severe that it leads to heart failure.

“It’s an amazing procedure,” says Richard Channick, MD, director of the Mass General Pulmonary Hypertension and Thromboendarterectomy Program. “The patient is placed on a heart lung machine and their body is cooled to less than 18 degrees Celsius. The surgeon then carefully peels the chronic blood clots away from the insides of the vessels.  When done by experienced surgeons, the procedure can cure the problem.”

The PTE procedure was pioneered in the 1960s by physicians and surgeons at the University of California, San Diego. Three years ago Richard Channick, MD, who had been part of that program for more than 20 years, came to Mass General to become director of Mass General’s growing Pulmonary Hypertension and Thromboendarterectomy Program. Since Channick’s arrival – in close collaboration with thoracic surgeon Cameron Wright, MD, and cardiac surgeons Gus Vlahakes, MD, and Thoralf Sundt, MD – the Mass General program now has established itself as a national referral center and has become the second largest program in the country. Mass General recently completed its 50th PTE and now performs about one of these specialized procedures every week. 

Despite the intensity of the surgery, recovery is typically relatively short. Most patients stay in the hospital for only five to seven days before returning home to their new and improved life. “The shortness of breath is relieved almost immediately,” Channick says. “And our patients say that they feel like a huge weight has been lifted off of their chest. It’s really, really satisfying to see the patients return home to a much better quality of life. Many of these patients would have died if we didn’t offer this resource.”

A year and a half after his surgery, Price is thankful to be feeling better and for the ability to be back to enjoying his active lifestyle. He recently took a four day, 120-mile cycling trip through Glacier National Park in Montana. “I kind of jumped at the chance to do the surgery,” Price says. “It was something that I didn’t take lightly because the surgery itself is pretty serious – but I don’t know where I’d be today if I didn’t have the operation. The doctors were incredible – really miracle workers. I was going downhill pretty quickly. But now when I’m on my bike, I’m pedaling up those hills.”

“Until the day I meet my maker, I will always thank them for giving me the quality of life that I wouldn’t have had,” Price adds. “I still have living left to do.”

The Pulmonary Hypertension and Thromboendarterectomy Program at Massachusetts General Hospital is committed to the state-of-the-art evaluation, treatment and support of patients with all forms of pulmonary hypertension. For more information, call 617-724-3705.

About Massachusetts General Hospital

The Massachusetts General Hospital ( is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. MGH conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the United States, with an annual research budget of nearly $700 million and major research centers in AIDS, cardiovascular research, cancer, computational and integrative biology, cutaneous biology, human genetics, medical imaging, neurodegenerative disorders, regenerative medicine, reproductive biology, systems biology, transplantation biology and photomedicine.

Media Contacts: Colleen Marshall, (617) 726-0275,

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