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bcpRecently, Hema my niece sent me this chain mail and asked my opinion about it


Recently this past week, my cousin Nicole Dishuk (age 31…newly graduated student with a doctoral degree about to start her new career as a Doctor…) was flown into a nearby hospital, because she passed out.

They found a blood clot in her neck, and immediately took her by helicopter to the ER to operate. By the time they removed the right half of her skull to relieve the pressure on her brain; the clot had spread to her brain causing severe damage.

Since last Wednesday night, she was battling… they induced her into a coma to stop the blood flow, they operated 3 times… Finally, they said there was nothing left that they could do… they found multiple clots in the left side of her brain… the swelling wouldn’t stop, and she was on life support…

She died at 4:30 yesterday. She leaves behind a husband, a 2yr old Brandon and a 4yr old Justin… The CAUSE of DEATH – they found was a birth control she was taking that allows you to only have your period 3 times a year… They said it interrupts life’s menstrual cycle, and although it is FDA approved… shouldn’t be – So to the women in my address book – I ask you to boycott this product & deal with your period once a month – so you can live the rest of the months that your life has in store for you….”

The mail goes on to name the products by trade name and asks people to boycott them. Hem wanted me to opine on this. Here is my reply to her:

Every drug has side effects. But in general, modern drugs will undergo many checks and tests in order to be extremely safe. So it is unlikely that hundreds and hundreds of women who take birth control pill drugs are dying such horrible deaths regularly.

Let me illustrate safety of important drugs with an example. A patient of mine, who has a serious heart disease,  is on aspirin for many years. We know that aspirin prevents death due to heart attacks and strokes. So, it is possible that this guy lives on thanks to aspirin.

Now, the other day this patient started vomiting blood and was rushed to the hospital almost in an unconscious state. Fortunately we were all there and despite the fact that he had vomited over one and a half litres of blood we managed to transfuse blood to him and take him up for a test called as endoscopy. This test showed that he had a huge ulcer in the stomach which was continuously bleeding. That bleeding was controlled by endoscopic treatment and the patient went home after 3 days of recovery time.

I can easily make a huge story about this and send a chain email which says: Aspirin causes big bleeding ulcers and you can die of a horrible death, so all you heart patients please stop taking aspirin! And also I could request ‘everyone who cares about your near and dear ones to forward this mail to as many people as possible and prevent hundreds of deaths!’ Yet I prescribe aspirin to literally hundreds every month because it saves too many lives

If you ban birth control pills based on such sensational stories then you will have a billion people in each state of India and we will all die because there will not be enough food to eat for all of us!

It is possible that this story is true. But whoever wrote it up made it look so  gruesome to you tend to vilify the drug. And when you read this, you are not reading the positive side of this drug. Worse, people maybe forwarding such mails to their contacts without even verifying if it was true thus causing panic and misinformation about drugs.

As I said at the beginning, every drug has side effects. Thanks to research and regulations modern drugs are very safe and serious side effects are extremely rare. Rather, far more lives are saved by the good effects of drugs than are lost due to their adverse effects. Patients who take medicines should consult doctors and learn about the positive and negative effects of drugs, balance the possible risks with possible benefits and then take the decision to use the drug or not, rather than being tricked by such mails!

If you have more chain mails on medical stuff, send them to me. Let’s look at them objectively.


Yesterday was revelation day. I met an old friend. Dr Suresh graduated from the same medical school as me. When I was a student, I was always envious of people like Suresh: his father ran a busy practice in his village and when Suresh completed medicine he would naturally join and later on fully take over daddy’s clinic. For students like us future was always uncertain and Sureshs and Rameshs who were doctors’ children left few opportunities of pointing this difference.


Things turned out a little different I guess. We sat together for dinner last night and I realized what medical practice is like in rural India. Suresh had a clinic in the village where he worked between 10 AM and 8 PM. He could walk home for lunch and coffee breaks etc., but only when he had no patients. There was no appointment system which meant whether or not there were patients he would have to sit in the clinic throughout the day. On an average he saw about 20 patients from within his village and the surrounding ones. I thought that was a good deal, till I heard how much he charged. He would charge each patient between 10 and 20 rupees! Some of the cab drivers in Bangalore earn more than that! But then, if he charges more, the patient will never return.


What about lab tests? What about pharmacy? Are these available nearby?


In the village clinic, Suresh explained, asking for a lab test is not practical because there is no lab in the vicinity. Also, the patient never had the money for the tests. If you advice a lab test, the patient simply moved to a different doctor. This means that practically all diseases are diagnosed presumptively and we all know how flimsy and dangerous such practice can be.


As far as the pharmacy is concerned, Suresh explained that he cannot prescribe medicines most of the time for two reasons: prescription medicines are costly and patients will not buy them. So, for the same fees that Suresh has collected, he is expected to dispense cheap, generic drugs to patients!


The other practical problem is if one patient in a family gets a prescription for, let’s say cough and cold, that prescription is never thrown away: anyone in that family has cough and cold next time, the same prescription is followed. Loss of revenue for the doctor! And if a child falls ill, half or one-fourth of the dose is administered out of the same prescription: can be dangerous too!


Medical practice in rural setting in India doesn’t seem as romantic and adventurous as James Herriot’s veterinary practice; or as humorous as Richard Gordon’s experiences amongst humans. Lack of doctors, paramedics, medicines, facility for safe surgery and child-birth, awareness of preventive healthcare all pose a humongous problem. Villagers, both patients and doctors seem to get a raw deal because of poor infrastructure, while plush corporate hospitals in the metros are trying to attract medical tourism.


Yet another irony of independent India!





security1After the chilling incidents in Mumbai during the last few days, we are all ‘limping’ back to normalcy. Meaning, we are now turning away from page One to the sports columns and page 3s faster than the last couple of days. For a change, ‘important’ heads have already rolled or on the block this time, but honestly the pessimists amongst us do not expect major changes except that after all the political chess moves, I think finally India will be under lot of pressure, ironically!


Which is not the point of the blog: this is about two incidents that left me with no doubts that we are a nation of fools.


Incident One: My boss went to a very reputed scientific organization in Bangalore on Friday to give a lecture on how to prevent heart diseases. The august audience consisted of some of their top scientists. This organization was recently in the news for carrying out successfully a very prestigious mission, thus enabling India to join an exclusive club of nations who have carried out similar feat.


On reaching the gate in his private car, my boss’ driver lowered the glass and the security guard peeped inside and asked the driver who deing driven. He was told that so-and-so doctor from such-and-such hospital was there to deliver a lecture. The guard must have had this info earlier and must have been expecting the good doctor, who incidentally is very reputed. But still, no identification papers were asked for and the car was allowed to pass without even a symbolic security check of the boot and the undercarriage!


The doctor was then accompanied by some scientists to the director’s office. The director was very courteous and they both had coffee together. All this while my boss was carrying his laptop which remained unchecked. Later on when he finished off the lecture at a hall below, my boss suddenly remembered that another leather bag which he had carried was accidentally left behind in the director’s office and it remained there during the entire time of the lecture!


I shudder to imagine the security consequences if at all this visitor were a turncoat or someone in disguise or simply a different guy. And this monumental negligence was on Friday when we were still fighting the terrorists holed up in the hotels.


Incident Two: I drove to a reputed hospital in town to visit a sick relative admitted there on Sunday. The security guy handed me a parking ticket and waved me in. I asked if there is going to be any security check. The guy’s face was blank and I instantly realized two things: one, there is going to be no increase in security at many such places. Two, it struck me that this security guard was probably not even aware of what had happened in Mumbai, and why I had asked him if there was going to be a security check of the car!


Just after such an attack on my motherland, half of us don’t seem to care and the other half is not even aware. Do we still expect 26/11 to bring about a change in our attitude? Forget about it..



vac1This was an unusual dilemma for me. My second child was due for routine vaccinations & my wife planned to take my first child along. Our pediatrician, incidentally a dear friend, suggested that Hepatitis A vaccine be given to my first born. Wife consulted me & with whatever knowledge of hepatitis A and various vaccination programs, I said no. But my wife & our pediatrician together decided otherwise and the vaccine was given anyway. They somehow tried to justify their stand by saying when it comes to children’s health one should not mind spending, as if I was worried about that! In fact the kind pediatrician, offered to pay for the vaccine! Thanks a lot doc!


This blog is in response to that event. I’m bouncing my thoughts off you, random reader. This has now got nothing to do with my daughter’s bygone vaccination.


Hepatitis A is a viral infection which is transmitted by feco-oral route (Don’t say yeeash!). Fecally contaminated water contains viral particles and when such water is consumed infection occurs. Now there is a difference between Hep A infection & Hepatitis A disease. In a large majority (nearly 90%) of children who ingest Hep A contaminated water the virus enters the system, goes into the liver cells, is recognized by the body immune system and is cleared by the body’s policemen. In the process the child develops permanent immunity against future Hep A infection.


In less than 10%, children exposed to Hep A virus, the virus actually damages the liver cells leading to ‘jaundice’, before the body’s immune system is activated. Eventually immune system wakes up and clears the virus from the body, damaged liver cells heals, thus jaundice goes away. Extremely rarely, liver damage is severe enough to be fatal. Unlike Hepatitis B or C, hep A never causes chronic liver disease.


In adults on the other hand, it is a little different. Nearly 30% of those exposed to Hep A suffer from jaundice. And the illness is clinically little more severe in terms of symptoms and duration in adults than in children. Even in adults fatal liver damage is very very rare.


So it appears that it is better to have Hep A exposure during childhood than later.


In endemic regions like India, water contamination is so rampant that practically everyone is exposed and immune to Hep A before they are 10. On the other hand, in developed world, exposure is rare. So it makes sense for a child in the US to be vaccinated against Hep A.


Early vaccination (my child is 3yrs), prevents natural infection and immunity and if the vaccine acquired immunity wanes in late adulthood, the individual is at risk for developing clinically more serious hepatitis. So WHO does not support routine vaccination in endemic areas where Hep A exposure is universal and natural immunity is lifelong.


Any thoughts on this?


P.S., this kind of argument does not apply to diseases like Diphtheria or measles where the clinical illness is severe as well as life-threatening. What I’m saying is I’m not against vaccinations in general. Only against Hep A vaccination for children in endemic areas

Patients with blocks in the coronary arteries can suffer from the following problems

  1. 1. Chest pain – Angina Pectoris, stable and unstable
  2. 2. Heart attack – Myocardial Infarction
  3. 3. Reduced pumping capacity of the heart – heart failure
  4. 4. Sudden death due to cardiac arrest


Today we shall talk about stable angina pectoris. The reason for this is during the last year and a half, a clinical trial (COURAGE), published in the New England Journal of Medicine has stirred up the debate on how to treat stable angina.


Patients with stable angina get chest discomfort or pain on walking, running or other physical exertion. Pain is typically absent with minimal effort or at rest. Patients with angina at rest or very minimal activity have unstable angina (USA). USA is a more serious condition and we shall talk about it another time.


When body is at rest the workload on the heart is low. During exertion the heart has to pump harder and to supply higher energy for this pumping function, heart demands increased blood flow through the coronary arteries. Typically stable angina is due to blocks in the coronary arteries that are serious enough to hamper increased blood flow during effort, yet allow normal blood flow during rest. Which explains why symptoms occur only during effort.


Such patients get relief of symptoms by one or more of following treatments:

  1. Anti-anginal medications: medical treatment (MT)
  2. Coronary angioplasty with or without stent placement (PCI)
  3. Coronary artery bypass grafting surgery (CABG)


Even when PCI or CABG is applied the basic medications will continue. So if I mean CABG, it actually means that CABG is added on to MT.


It is no rocket science to understand that for patients with milder degrees of the problem, MT suffices and for more serious angina, PCI & CABG may be additionally required. Which patients will require PCI & CABG will depend on a number of clinical parameters: so-called indications. For instance in patients who have left main coronary blocks or serious reduction of heart pumping function or with multiple blocks in all 3 coronary arteries CABG is indicated. This is because it has been proven by scientific studies that such patients are at risk of developing heart attack and/or dying if left on MT alone.


There is a problem in applying this seemingly simple treatment principle to PCI: hitherto no scientific study has shown that PCI, i.e., stents can prevent death or heart attacks in patients who have stable angina when compared to MT. which means that if angina is well controlled, MT alone is enough. And if risk of death or Myocardial infarction (MI) is perceived, one should proceed for CABG.


Where do stents come in into this equation?


When stents were introduced PCI was applied to patients who had serious blocks and needed surgery. PCI was more convenient to patients and less expensive than CABG. As experience with stents grew, more & more situations that hitherto required CABG were being addressed by PCI.


In situations like heart attack and unstable angina, PCI is certainly life saving. In many circumstances, an assumption was made that in stable angina too stents would be life saving. This may account for the fact that a larger number of patients with stable angina undergo PCI than CABG. Consider this: in USA 7% pts of angina undergo PCI as compared to 2% every year. This accounts for over 100,000 PCI procedures each year.



This clinical trial compared the effects of MT & PCI: it was meant to see if use of stents benefitted by preventing deaths or heart attacks in stable angina patients. In this study it was observed that when used early during the course of angina, stents do not prevent death or heart attacks more effectively than medicines alone do. Medical treatment alone was good enough to protect patients against death or heart attacks. However, two additional facts were observed:

1. Stents provided quicker and more effective relief from angina

2. Many patients, in fact nearly a third, who were put on MT alone at the outset ‘crossed over’ and underwent a PCI procedure midway.


What this tells is that some patients have angina severe enough to warrant PCI or even a CABG. But mere fact that someone has angina does not mean that stents have to be inserted. In a large majority of patients medications can be just as good.


Close analysis of COURAGE trial will show that there were methodological and statistical problems. Following the publication of the trial there has been a spate of articles both in the medical journals and regular press about the trial. 18 months after the trial, the debate rages as to whether the trial was appropriately conducted, whether the results of the trial are wrong, whether stents should be used at all for treating angina.


Doctors who argue for COURAGE say that stents have been overused for treatment of stable angina. They feel that needless PCI procedures on patients who can be treated with medicines, causes an economic burden and puts patients to risk of the procedure. In fact, pro-COURAGE activists feel that stents are being inserted because it financially benefits hospitals and doctors involved.


Doctors who argue against COURAGE say that a reasonable number of patients cannot be satisfactorily treated medicines alone, yet their condition does not warrant a CABG surgery. These patients benefit from stents, and in fact need them. These doctors feel that COURAGE, with all its methodological flaws, has needlessly cast aspersion on the interventional fraternity.


Nevertheless, looking at the mass of medical literature even other than COURAGE trial, the following conclusions can be made about stents in stable angina

  1. Stable angina is not as dangerous as heart attack or Unstable angina. Still, all stable angina patients do not end up with uniformly safe outcomes. Some patients are truly low risk patients who are unlikely to die or have heart attacks in the coming years. Some, however carry a real risk of death or heart attack
  2. Identification of low or high risk depends on clinical parameters: age, gender, smoking status, diabetes, previous heart attacks or heart surgery, severity of angina etc.
  3. In addition an echocardiogram can be used to calculate the pumping efficiency of the heart. If the pumping is low, risk is high.
  4. Most patients of stable angina should undergo a stress test: either a TMT or a stress thallium. These tests can identify patients at high risk for heart attack or death
  5. For patients with truly low risk medical treatment alone is fine. Rarely do such patients need to undergo angiography, PCI or CABG if well treated with medicines
  6. All patients who fall in the higher risk categories should undergo coronary angiography
  7. Based on the coronary angio report many of them will undergo CABG surgery
  8. A proportion of patients who have severe angina not well treated by medicines alone, but whose angiography does not suggest need for CABG, maybe treated with stents


COURAGE or no courage, it appears that stents will continue to be used for treatment of severe stable angina. Improvement in angina and quality of life is unquestionable with stents. Better conducted trials will definitely address whether stents save lives in stable angina setting. Until then one difference COURAGE has made is that, unnecessary use of stents for trivial angina has certainly been minimized.




Last night I saw PGI in my dreams. Not my ex-girlfriend. PGI stands for Post Graduate Institute for Medical Education & Research. Located in Chandigarh – The City Beautiful – this place is a tertiary referral center for five states: Punjab, Haryana, J&K, Rajasthan & parts of UP. I think now one should also add Uttaranchal to this list.
What I dreamt was not my life in PGI, rather my exit from it. I was driving out in my brand new Santro with myCity Beautiful wife with a 14” television and the monitor of my Celeron 256 PC in the back seat. This is exactly what had happened in Dec 2001. But the importance of that is best understood in perspective. 




The year 1994, Sridhar & I ( I did pick up ‘Hi, myself Venkatesh’ from punjabi friends at chandigarh, but I’m normal now!) went to PGI to give the entrance exam. Sridhar got into Radiodiagnosis in Jan & I got into Internal Medicine in July of the fateful year. We had entered PGI with an old suitcase each – not branded, just bought off Sadar bazar in Delhi. Once allotted rooms in the hostel (good old Kairon block!), both of us had bought mattresses costing 150 bucks apiece (Indian rupees!). Those were all the assets we had apart from the shirts on our backs.


Eight years later, Sridhar was already in Boston and he missed this scene: I had joined a corporate hospital in Mohali and was shifting out of PGI campus a week ahead of my last working day there. There was a small one ton truck in front full of my effects: furniture, books, refrigerator and clothes. I had just bought the car I was driving and was the proud owner of my small TV & the desktop in the back.


I commented to my wife that everything in the truck and the car – every single thing except her – was earned & not bequeathed: including the two medical degrees which would later be my passports to better jobs. At that precise point we were passing the main gate of my Alma Mater. Impulsively I pulled over outside. We both got off the car and watched the main entrance. We silently paid homage to great institute that made our life and got into the car & drove off.


What I am today is what you have made out of me: Thanks PGI…



Two days ago a patient was brought into the hospital with a heart attack. Though he had raised the alarm that he had severe chest pain, and though his immediate family had recognized that this could be a heart attack, he took full two-and-a-half hours to reach our hospital emergency room, the nearest one, in the middle of the night when there was practically no traffic!


This is how:


First there was the transport issue: the family didn’t own a car. So they had to wake their neighbor and explain to him about the crisis and then it took some minutes for the neighbor to dress and take the car out of his house premises.


Then, the patient was driven to the house of a doctor within the same locality. The good doc was awoken, listened to the patient’s story, mercifully conducted a cursory examination in the car itself, without wasting much time. He also felt that this looked like a heart attack, and since he did not have the facility to perform an ECG test in his house, he suggested that the patient be taken to a nearby nursing home.


The nursing home was a short drive, the patient had to be put on a stretcher, carried into the casualty area, and an ECG was obtained. There was a junior doctor on duty who confirmed the family’s suspicion that this was indeed a heart attack. But since there was no ICU facility in the nursing home, the family was advised to shift the patient to a bigger hospital. This meant that the whole drama of lifting the stretcher, putting the patient into the car and driving around had to restart.


Mercifully someone had the forethought of calling up a friend and then after consensus they drove to the nearby tertiary care hospital, where we could attend to him. Though valuable time was lost patient survived with some damage to the heart muscle.


Things could have been worse: he could have had a cardiac arrest while being driven around or even inside the nursing home and might never have reached the tertiary care hospital at all! How could this have been bettered?


You know, if you walk into a hotel lobby or a high rise corporate office, you have detailed building evacuation plan in case of fire or some such disaster. Why can’t we have such disaster management plans for our homes? I’m suggesting one for cardiac emergencies. Make this plan today when all is well at home.


First, identify a hospital which has the facility of ECG and has an ICU to treat heart attack patients, which is the fastest to reach. Remember, fastest need not be the physically closest one. In many metros in India, during peak hour traffic some places are hard to reach in a hurry. In fact, you can identify different hospitals for day and night time when the traffic conditions are likely to be different.


Get the emergency contact numbers for hospital you are going to reach and write it down someplace handy: it can be a wall calendar in the kitchen (common middle class family practice in south India), or on a sticker on the undersurface of your telephone.


Next, pre-determine the mode of transport in case of emergencies. If a car and a designated driver are at home, then that is your transport mode. Call the hospital emergency that you are coming and the designated driver will drive.


If a car is unavailable, or if the designated driver is not at home or himself/herself is the casualty, then the best bet is to get an ambulance. The ambulance can be from the same hospital or from another nearby source. Get the emergency contact numbers of one or more ambulance services and write it down along with the hospital emergency numbers.


Keep aspirin tablets handy: 325 milligram tablets should be fine. In case someone has chest pain & you suspect it is heart related one tablet of aspirin should be chewed, not swallowed. Many of us are advised by friends or family that sorbitrate tablets should be given to patients for heart pain. Unless, advised by a doctor, this can actually cause blood pressure to drop and be dangerous.


The most important thing to do in a suspected heart attack to get good secondary care treatment as early as possible. Plan ahead and do not waste time in getting to the right place. The instructions to family members as to what to do in a crisis situation should be explicit and should be followed as a reflex even in the middle of the night.


Even organisations can have similar medical disaster management plans drawn up for their shop floors and facilities so when men (or women) at work are affected, things move fast.


That should save some lives!




In May, I started this blog when I was facing a dilemma: I wanted to bounce ideas off you as to whether I should send an old man for surgery or not (link). Now I am writing in to tell you that I did send him up for surgery and my worst fears came true.


No, my worst fear was not that the patient died during surgery. It was that the family holds me, atleast indirectly responsible for the sad outcome.


In May I wrote, ‘The family looks up to me to take a decision. “We trust you. Do whatever is best for him. But please make sure that he’s alright”. The last line is a killer!’


After the patient died, the family came back and met me. Sons came in first. It was not very difficult to say that I was sorry for the family’s loss of a parent and that we had done everything we could, and that some times it helps to be fatalistic. We went through the fact that both I and my surgeon had explained that the surgery carried a reasonably important risk of dying for the patient. The sons had actually signed the high risk consent after appropriate counseling. Perhaps they understood that we had not intended that the patient should die! They left thanking my fidgety self for taking care of their father during his illness and last moments.


Then the inconsolable daughter walked in. She did not and does not even now understand that 10% risk of dying during surgery meant that out of 10 such patients one will actually die. “I thought it’s just a 10% risk, but if you had told me that he is going to die during surgery, I would have convinced him against it”




At a point of time I had to be a bit impatient. When we explained 10% risk of dying, we didn’t mean that 10% of his body will die and the rest will go home fine! We actually meant that there is a real possibility of dying…she told me that the family had trusted me because of the way I had taken care of her father for nearly two years. But the misgiving with which she finally walked away was that had I not advised him to go for surgery, he would have lived for some more time. Given the fact that he was quite sick the last few days, I was not sure of how long he would have lived but then how could I argue on that?


My point is not that it was after a truly sincere debate that I had resorted to surgical advice. I can’t tell the family that it was such an important dilemma that it turned me into a blogger!


My point is: Doctors are going to take hard decisions. Some of their patients are going to die. It never matters how much science or philosophy goes behind those decisions: if your decision was followed by death or disability, you will be held responsible for it!


My posts are never likely to be daily, but I am constantly on the look out for a good thing to write about. Except during the past one week.

The virus (I presume, I got better without antibacterials!) that got me this time was particularly nasty. I texted to a friend that I f**ked me so badly each time the fever spiked, that I was convinced that what I had was ‘gay fever’ and going by the way by spine ached during these days of being ill, I thought the virus caused ‘broke back fever’

Jokes apart I’m back at work. Mind is a bit rusty, but shall come back with a post shortly

Thanks anonymous reader, for coming this way & especially for passing this way again

People who develop blocks in the coronary arteries are often advised to undergo bypass surgery. During last quarter of 20th century coronary angioplasty saw dramatic improvements leading to a sea change in the kind treatment offered to patients with coronary artery disease (CAD). In the west, there has been a sharp decline in the number of coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) surgeries and a phenomenal increase in the number of angioplasties.


Is that because angioplasty is better than surgery?


More importantly, is this situation applicable to India?


There are patients of CAD where CABG is the only solution. Angioplasty will simply not do. Similarly, there are patients where angioplasty and not surgery is the appropriate treatment. For the sake of this discussion, we leave out these unambiguous cases. The argument as to whether surgery or stenting is superior is relevant in cases where both treatments are equally feasible and a choice requires to be made.


The recently published Stenting versus Internal Mammary (SIMA) trial (conducted at multiple hospitals in Europe, Chief Investigator Dr Jean-Jacques Goy, MD, University Hospital, Lausanne, Switzerland) should serve as an ideal backdrop to this comparison between surgery and stenting.


Coronary block occurring at the beginning (proximal part) of the major blood vessel called Left anterior descending (LAD) artery of the heart are often fatal. This proximal LAD block is so feared that the artery is euphemistically known as the ‘widow maker’. Traditionally CABG surgery has been the main treatment of blocks in this location. There has been no direct comparison of long term results of surgery and stenting for treating blocks of this kind.


This new study has shown that patients who undergo stenting for proximal LAD blocks fare as well as those who undergo surgery, as far as protection against heart attacks and loss of life. The study also showed that in some patients whose blocks were treated by stenting, the blocks recurred. Such patients then required to undergo repeat angioplasty or CABG surgery.


In essence this means that:


1.         Patients with critical blocks in the widow-maker artery now have two options: Bypass surgery or stenting. Either way the risk of such a patient getting a heart attack or actually dying are quite low


2.         Stenting offers a convenience unbeatable by surgery. Patient is up and about in two or three days.


3.         In nearly 80% of patients, there is no recurrence of the block and patient will not need another procedure in his/her entire life for this block.



This study was begun over a decade ago and in those days the heart specialists used ‘Bare Metal’ stents (BMS). These BMS carried a risk of recurrence of the block in nearly 20% patients who were treated. On the other hand, bypass surgery is far superior in the long term if the internal mammary artery (IMA, the artery behind the breast bone) was used for grafting. Over 95% of patients with IMA graft to the LAD were free from problems even after 15 years of surgery! Because of this difference in risk of recurrence, surgery was always considered superior to stenting.


Cut to 2002: Johnson & Johnson released a new stent, CYPHER, known as Drug Eluting Stent (DES) essentially a BMS which was coated by a special medicine, which was intended to prevent the recurrence of the blocks treated. After several million of these DES having been implanted, we know that there is no recurrence in 90 – 95% of patients: as good as surgery with IMA graft. Soon after other DES have appeared in the market and look to be as good as CYPHER if not better.


Through SIMA study we know that stenting is safe even with BMS. Cardiologists are certain that with the use of DES even the recurrence rates are comparable to surgery, so stenting seems to be an effective alternative to surgery.


Caveats for the Indian patients:


1.         Several cardiac surgery centres in India especially in the tier 2 cities lack the expertise to offer IMA graft for the widow maker artery in bypass surgeries. Veins from the leg are used instead. Venous grafts are not as durable as IMA grafts and in fact nearly 20% of them occlude in the first 5 to 6 years. While venous grafts are acceptable in grafting of other arteries, in most cases IMA grafts must be preferred for the LAD. So before a patient decides on surgery it should be confirmed whether an IMA graft will be used.


2.         Many makes of DES are available in India manufactured in India, Europe, China and so on. Though none of these stents have been specifically compared in tests against bypass surgery, only few can claim really low recurrence rates. In other words all DES are not equal. So a patient offered stenting with a DES should not automatically assume that he will have a surgery-equivalent procedure unless he knows what DES is being used


3.         In the west, the leaning towards stenting is because stenting is cheaper than bypass surgery. Insurance companies prefer to go along cardiologists who advise stenting. Hospitals are happy because number of hospital days are less and so patient turnover can be more.


4.         In India, however, CABG is far cheaper than stenting with DES. So the western preference of stenting over surgery need not be automatically applied to India.


So what seems to be the right thing for the Indian patients with block in the widow maker artery?


1.         Stenting with a standard DES is as good as CABG with IMA grafting


2.         In case the stents fail, a second procedure would most likely be required.


3.         So, if you are short on cash (selling off a couple of cows or an acre of land to raise the money), perhaps surgery is a better choice because it is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime procedure.


4.         If you have loads of cash and prefer to avoid surgery, stenting with a standard DES is fine: because there is a 95% chance that you actually get away!


5.         All this applies to the average patient: there are special circumstances in which these rules do not apply and the treating doctor is the best person to take the decision