Olympic Medical Center welcomes echocardiac upgrades

With the help of a donation of $80,000 from the Olympic Medical Center Foundation, Olympic Medical Center's Cardiac Services department has been able to make significant upgrades to its echocardiogram devices. The machines are essential for pinpointing and diagnosing heart-related ailments.

Although the medical center has been able to make upgrades to the machines over the years, largely having to do with software, these upgrades will dramatically remodel three of the department's machines, the oldest of which dates back to 1997. According to cardiac services director Judy Tordini, the project will cost about $160,000 and the new improvements should make the machines viable for another five years.

The medical center has had its own echocardiogram capability since 1990. Before then, a small visiting service provided echocardiograms.

"By 1990, it was the sort of thing where a fairly large medical center really needed to have this service available full time," said Dr. Paul Pederson, an internal medicine physician with specialized training in cardiology. Pederson came to OMC in 1990.

Although the technology is constantly improving, echocardiograms are not new. They were used in the 1950s, but did not have any real clinical applications until the 1980s. By the 1990s an echocardiogram was a standard procedure for cardiac diagnosis.

"Now it's absolutely bread and butter in medical care," Pederson said.

Echocardiograms are basically ultrasounds, comparable to fetal sonograms, except in this case the heart is being examined. Both create images through sound waves.

"It uses the same principles. It uses high frequency sound waves. Audible sound is like 20 to 2,000 cycles per second whereas the ultrasound that we use for imaging is 3 to 3 or 4 million cycles per second," Pederson explained. "You have an array of these sound waves so that there's a whole bunch of them going off rapidly over and over, and then you basically use computer technology to process all of these sound waves that are coming back incessantly."

"It's a very precise thing to learn, the hardest thing is keeping your hand steady. The smallest movement can change what you're seeing on the screen quite a bit," added Darrell Moody, a registered sonographic technician with the machines.

The images are digitalized and studied by Pederson and his colleagues to pinpoint a diagnosis. A physician will call for an echocardiogram when a patient displays signs of possible heart failure or coronary disease: fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain, abnormal heart palpitations and fluid retention (swelling in the legs).

"If you had someone who had a history of shortness of breath and on a physical exam you found evidence suspicious for heart failure, then you would want an echocardiogram to know what's causing this. Is it the heart or not, and if it is the heart, is this because the heart is weak or because of a bad valve in the heart?" Pederson said.

Olympic Medical Center performs more than 3,000 echocardiograms a year.

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