SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Two years ago it took Kenneth Pisor four days to rototill his garden. His out-of-sync heart left him exhausted after even the smallest bit of work.
Now he does it in four hours and has juice to spare.
For five years, Pisor suffered from atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart rhythm caused by too many electrical currents flowing to the organ.
But when Pisor was 60, he got what he called a "60-year tune up" - a new twist on a surgery that burns sections of the heart to squelch the electrical problems in his ticker.
"I just climbed in the Rockies at 12,000-foot elevations, no problem," Pisor said. "Before there was no way, but I feel like I'm 20 years younger now."
Curing atrial fibrillation through surgery is nothing new. Beginning in the 1980s, the heart was scarred during open-heart surgery to leave a specific path for the electrical current to take. Recently, surgeons have performed the fix with their hands by operating on the heart through incisions to the side of the body.
Dr. James Longoria, a Sutter Heart Institute surgeon in Sacramento, modified the increasingly popular procedure by doing the entire surgery with scopes. Instead of cuts that were inches wide, Longoria slices dime-sized holes for the scopes to enter.
Longoria said for someone who is otherwise healthy and doesn't want the risk and severity of open-heart surgery, this procedure is ideal.
Patients can expect shorter recovery periods, less pain and smaller scars than those who undergo open heart or even the more invasive side-entry surgery. Longoria is also able to test the electrical currents during surgery to determine if he made enough burns to stop the condition.
"I'm not changing the operation, I'm just changing the technique," said Longoria, who has done the procedure 29 times. "I saw an easier way to do it and it worked. I believe eventually it will be the standard."
Administering medications and using paddles to shock the heart back into a regular rhythm are temporary fixes for the estimated 5 million people in the United States with the condition. Patients with atrial fibrillation face a five-times increased risk of having a stroke because the condition decreases the heart's blood flow, which can cause clots.
Typical hearts have a pacemaker node that sends a signal to make the heart beat. People with the condition have other similar nodes that sends rogue signals, making the hearts rhythm irregular.
That irregularity tortured patient Lydia Luenemann almost daily. After seven years of suffering from atrial fibrillation, medications to control the condition stopped working. She would visit the emergency room several times a year to have her heart shocked into sync.
"Those last three years I could hardly exist," the 63-year-old said. "My life was on hold."
One day in September 2005, Luenemann felt her heart go out of sync, but chose not to go to the hospital.
"I was fed up," she said. "This had taken over my life."
The next day she had a stroke.
A year later, Longoria worked on Luenemann's heart; she said she hasn't had an episode since.
Although patients have been largely pleased with the outcome, Longoria's procedure doesn't come without drawbacks. Approaching the heart from the sides and through a scope limits the view of the organ. There's also a risk of bleeding. He admits there haven't been enough procedures performed yet to prove the method's long-term effectiveness.
"Initially it looks really promising," Longoria said. "When they come in six months later and say their lives are changed and they've never felt better - that shows me it's working."
But critics say doing the procedure entirely with scopes brings unnecessary risks.
"There's a debate about scopes for safety issues," said Dr. Bruce Lindsay of the Heart Rhythm Society. "If you get into trouble and have bleeding it is not as easy to control and your ability to see what you're doing is lessened."
Lindsay said while the procedure may have good results initially, long-term affects are still unknown.
Dr. Bill Schneeberger of University of Connecticut's Center for Surgical Innovation said the procedure is a natural progression similar to knee replacements becoming less invasive.
Of Longoria, he said, "He's a talented surgeon and one of few doing this procedure in the world," he said.
Longoria has praise for his patients, whom he sees as pioneers in the field of medical advances.
"They are like the first astronauts," he said. "They didn't know anything about building a spacecraft, but they trusted the engineers to build something that would fly."