The doctors could have sliced, diced, barbecued or boiled this patient. Instead, they zapped its tender tissues with ultraviolet light. The patient didn't make it, but no one was surprised. Its purpose was to serve -- if not as luncheon meat, then a medical experiment would do.
Thus, a hot dog succumbed to a cold laser yesterday morning when doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center bored a tiny hole through it to demonstrate the latest innovation in treating damaged hearts. Focusing their needle-point beam on a napkin-swathed frankfurter, medical experts showed how laser technology can vaporize fatty deposits that clog coronary arteries.
"This is an exciting new tool for treating patients with coronary disease," said Andrew A. Ziskind, director of the university's Cardiac Catheterization Center. "It's not a cure-all, but it will help selective patients."
University Hospital is one of 23 centers in the United States experimenting with laser treatment for cardiac patients. This "cold" laser procedure, which uses light rather than heat, has been tested on about 1,300 patients nationwide and five in Maryland. A hospital spokeswoman said University is the only medical center in Maryland currently offering the treatment.
Robert T. Franklin, a 61-year-old heart patient, was among the first to benefit from the laser technique. Mr. Franklin had already suffered multiple heart attacks and had undergone bypass surgery.
His delicate condition made him the perfect candidate to test the new procedure.
"I didn't feel like a guinea pig. I just prayed to the good Lord it would go well," said Mr. Franklin, who watched a monitor while doctorsworked on him. "I was uncomfortable before, but now I feel real good."
In recent years, medical researchers have assiduously pursued alternatives to bypass surgery -- a difficult and risky operation. In addition to lasers, university doctors are also experimenting with a device that uses a rotating blade to cut fatty deposits from arteries.
The most common alternative to bypass surgery now is balloon angioplasty, a technique that uses an inflated balloon to push fatty deposits to the outer walls of a clogged artery.
"The laser allows us to help people with difficult blockages that cannot be treated effectively with balloon angioplasty," Dr. Ziskind said, adding that balloon angioplasty often follows laser therapy to assure optimal results. "For selected patients with the toughest cases, for whom traditional angioplasty would not be effective, the laser offers an alternative."
Dr. Ziskind estimates 10 percent to 15 percent of patients with blocked arteries would be candidates for laser therapy, while balloon angioplasty would help the other 85 percent to 90 percent.
During yesterday's news conference, when the laser was demonstrated, Dr. Ziskind watched carefully as the thin blue beam made contact with the frankfurter. When the experiment ended, he said the familiar burned smell was the same aroma that wafts over cookouts or baseball stadiums.
"We use a frankfurter because it's made of tissue and it's easy to get," Dr. Ziskind explained. "These are from our cafeteria."