Tiny balloon gets to heart of the matter

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THE FULL medical examination which Chris Patten underwent before taking up his post in July as Governor of Hong Kong might not have shown the early signs of heart disease, an expert said yesterday. 'It is quite possible to have an ECG (electrocardiogram) and for it not to show problems,' said Professor Desmond Julian, medical director of the British Heart Foundation.

It is likely that Mr Patten would have experienced chest pain recently and had this investigated, he said. Mr Patten, known locally as Fat Pang, is not particularly overweight. He plays tennis, but is a former smoker and will be 49 in May, which puts him in the classic age range for signs of heart disease or a heart attack.

His doctors have found two narrowed coronary arteries. Today he will undergo a procedure called balloon angioplasty. Before this, he will have had an angiogram, in which a special catheter is fed into the blood vessels and filled with radio-opaque fluid to pinpoint the narrowed sections, on X-ray. Then, under local anaesthetic, a fine catheter will be fed into the femoral artery, at the groin, and into the narrowed artery. There a tiny balloon will be expanded to smooth the fatty deposits which have caused the artery to narrow and have restricted blood flow to the heart. Mr Patten will be in hospital for about four days and convalescent for 10.

Balloon angioplasty has been conducted since 1977 in Britain and about 10,000 are done each year. It is a relatively simple procedure which takes two or three hours. Occasionally the treatment goes wrong and the artery is blocked, when the patient needs immediate bypass surgery.

Professor Julian said that the treatment is usually successful and the angina (chest pain) is cured. But in about one-quarter of cases it needs to be done again after two or three months. 'Then it is usually completely successful,' he said.