The procedure gives patients new heart valves, but without a major incision, and without general anesthesia.
It involves a unique new replacement valve called a transcatheter heart valve.
A replacement heart valve is sewn into a stent. The stent is attached to a catheter, then through an artery in the leg, the catheter is carefully threaded up to the heart valve. The stent expands and the new valve unfolds and does its job.
The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania is one of a handful of medical centers testing the experimental valves. Dr. Howard Hermann, an interventional cardiologist, and Dr. Joseph Bavaria, are leading the study in Philadelphia.
In New York, in late October. Sister Thomas Duggan became one of only a few hundred people in this country to have the new procedure. Her procedure was at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.
Doctors diagnosed her with aortic stenosis. A heart valve with stenosis is narrowed and blocks blood flow.
Dr. Martin Leon, a heart specialist at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, said the health of a patient with aortic stenosis deteriorates very rapidly.
"When the valve doesn't open normally, pressure builds up in the heart. Patients get short of breath because the pressures in the lungs are now elevated and they accumulate fluid in the lungs. But they can also develop chest pains, lightheadedness and fainting as well," Leon said.
Leon said Sister Thomas needed a new heart valve, but that meant open-heart surgery, an operation she was likely too frail to survive. Eight years ago, her sister died from aortic stenosis and it seemed she was looking at the same fate.
One month later, Sister Thomas was back for a checkup and feeling great. In fact, she said she felt well a day after the operation.
"I could tell the difference the night after...in terms of the breathlessness," Thomas said.
A few weeks before, she couldn't take a few steps without getting out of breath; now she zips around the convent.
She is hoping to start tutoring again soon. For her family, the procedure and her recovery have been a holiday gift like no other.
And it paid off, it paid off, her braveness. And she's helping to pave the way for other people. That's the best part," said her niece Shelley Moran.