The origins of heart catheterization: Part II

On the afternoon of October 30th, 1958, nearly 30 years after Werner Forssmann’s fumbling attempts, Dr. Mason Sones, a 5 foot 5 inch, plain-talking, cuss-every-few-words, cigarette-wielding radiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, was performing a routine angiogram of a patient’s aorta (the large vessel emerging from the heart) in a dark basement laboratory. (In Sones’ day, imaging methods remained primitive, disease diagnosis relying more than anything else on the physician’s powers of observation and crude diagnostic procedures. Abdominal pain was assessed with exploratory laparotomy, headaches with air injected into the brain and nervous system (“pneumoencephalography”), an excruciatingly painful ordeal. Being able to track the course of x-ray dye injected into specific internal organs, whether liver, biliary tree, aorta, lungs, or coronary arteries, represented a huge advance in diagnostic tools for human disease.)

In 1958, no one had yet injected dye directly into the coronary artery of a living human.

Just as the dye injector was triggered, Dr. Sones’ eyes widened in horror when the black and white monitor showed that the catheter had inadvertently jumped into the right coronary artery. The injection pump, already triggered to release its load, proceeded to pump 30 cc of X-ray dye straight into the artery. (Modern techniques usually require only 5–10 cc of dye.) Dr. Sones recounts the incident:

“It was late in the day and we were tired. I hit the switch to rev up the x-ray generator so I could see. As the picture came on, I could see that the damn catheter was in the guy’s right coronary artery. And there I was, down in the hole [a recess to shield him from radiation]. I yelled, “Pull it out! Pull it out!”*? By that time, about 30 cc of the dye had gone into the coronary artery. I climbed out of the hole and I grabbed a knife. I thought that his heart would fibrillate and I would have to open his chest and shock his heart. [In Sones’ day, modern CPR hadn’t yet been developed as a method of resuscitation.] But he didn’t fibrillate—his heart stopped. I demanded he cough. He coughed three times and his heart began to beat again. I knew at once that if the heart could tolerate 30 cc of dye, we would be able to safely inject small amounts directly into the coronary artery. I knew that night that we would have a tool to define the anatomic nature of coronary disease.”

*An observer, Dr. Julio Sosa, reported that Dr. Sones, in his shock, also blurted, “We’ve killed him!” After all, conventional wisdom of that era, based on observations from dye injections into the coronary arteries of dogs, was that injecting x-ray dye into human coronary arteries would result in immediate death from the electrical imbalance provoked in heart muscle momentarily deprived of oxygen-carrying blood.

Thus it was established that it was indeed possible to directly inject x-ray dye into human coronary arteries and reveal its internal contours. That’s not to say that the x-ray dyes of 1958 were innocuous. Far from it. In addition to briefly interrupting heart rhythm, as happened with Sones’ first accidental attempt, the dyes used then typically caused dizziness and the sudden urge to vomit. During the first 30 years of direct coronary catheterizations, it was common for hospital staff to run to the patient’s side, bucket in hand to catch the inevitable vomit, once the heart was jump-started by coughing.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Sones’ discovery set off both an avalanche of criticism and bold predictions of how the new technique might change the course of diagnosis in heart disease.

Over the subsequent weeks and months, Dr. Sones proceeded to purposefully insert catheters into coronary arteries and create angiograms that revealed the extent of coronary atherosclerosis. He learned how to fashion new catheter shapes to facilitate access to the arteries. Sones developed an impressive experience in the new technique. For the first time, clear images of the coronary arteries were routinely obtainable for the confident diagnosis of coronary atherosclerosis before death. Dr. Sones became an unlikely celebrity in Cleveland, entertaining physicians from around the world eager to learn about his methods, politicians and celebrities, even Middle Eastern nobility complete with bodyguards and food testers.

Dr. Sones continued to work in Cleveland, furthering the techniques of heart catheterization after his fortuitous error. He died of lung cancer in 1985, 17 years after his discovery.

Thus was born the modern age of heart catheterization.

Today, over 10,000 heart procedures are performed in the U.S. every day, 365 days a year, the vast majority of which involve heart catheterization or begin with a heart catheterization. Dr. Sones' fortuitous blunder was followed by 30 years of productive refinement and development before the blatant excesses of this technique really began to be exploited.

Copyright 2008 William Davis, MD