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Righting Irregular Heartbeats at SIUH

silive.com

Dr. Soad Bekheit: A righter of irregular heartbeats

Published: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 10:24 AM     Updated: Wednesday, May 16, 2012, 10:31 AM
Marjorie Hack  
THE HEALERS  

The Healers Dr. Soad Bekheit puts in 12 to 14 hours a day at Staten Island University Hospital as the director of the Electrophysiology Services and Syncope Center. She is an electrophysiologist by training who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. (Staten Island Advance/Marjorie Hack)
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -  ALL SHORES - Unlike most,  Dr. Soad Bekheit's sight – or insight, if you will – has only gotten better with age. And what she can't see with her own eyes, she can pick out with the help of an array of new medical devices that tell her almost everything she needs to know about a human's most important muscle, the heart. 

"I have become very observant," explained Dr. Bekheit who was born and raised in Cairo. "I can look at someone and say 'You are so-and-so.' " 

"I was bred to do medicine," she added. "My whole life has been devoted to the science of medicine." 

Currently, she puts in 12 to 14 hours a day at Staten Island University Hospital as the director of the Electrophysiology Services and Syncope Center. Because of her long hours, Dr. Bekheit keeps an apartment in St. George where she lives during the week; come the weekend, she heads to an apartment in Manhattan. 

Dr. Bekheit's background speaks to her devotion to her profession. Her father was the director of the American Mission Hospital in Cairo. Her brother is a professor of surgery at Cairo University. Her mother did not work outside the home, and her sister is an accountant. 

Dr. Bekheit is an electrophysiologist by training who holds both an M.D. and a Ph.D. Electrophysiology is the study of electrical impulses to the heart. By studying these, a trained physician can detect cardiac arrhythmic disturbances, she said. Treating offbeat rhythms before they inflict major trauma is her specialty. 

It may strike many as odd, but Dr. Bekheit remembers being fascinated with conduction when she did her post-graduate training back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She believed more than 40 years ago that with a better understanding of how to manage human heartbeats gone awry, she could help patients in advance – before they suffered a heart attack or died. 

She was right. Today, at the age of 76, she is even better equipped to avert calamity because she has a number of more sensitive tools she can use to keep a patient out of trouble. And she'd be the first to tell you that they are pretty remarkable. 

The EKG (electrocardiogram – a simple, non-invasive test) has become the "window of the body," she explained. "You can tell the drugs a patient is taking. You can tell if the patient is prone to a certain type of arrhythmia (erratic heartbeat). You can tell if a patient has problems, if a patient is going to have a heart attack, fluid in the lungs or around the heart." 

Of course, "it's really important that you have a good expert reading these. Hence, this is why sub-specialties are very important. And electrophysiology is one of the major ones," said Dr. Bekheit. 


HOW SHE STARTED   

Dr. Bekheit was educated in Cairo. She earned her medical degree in internal medicine at Cairo University and her doctorate in Electrophysiology of Conduction in cardiovascular disease from Queens University of Belfast in 1972. 

She has completed numerous fellowships related to cardiology and electrophysiology, and served on the faculties of major universities teaching electrophysiology. 

"You're tested all the way through," she said, when asked about keeping her knowledge base current. 

Dr. Bekheit holds licenses in Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and New York, and is a US citizen. She is a member of seven professional organizations, including the Royal College of Physicians and the American College of Physicians. 

She's a fascinating mix of calm, cool, collected – and courageous. 

Recently, for example, an obese patient needed a life-saving procedure, but it was tough to find an anesthesiologist who wanted to take on the risk of sedating him, said Dr. Bekheit, who told an assistant without hesitation she'd do the procedure within days as soon as the one willing anesthesiologist returned from vacation. "Set it up," she ordered. 

Many patients come to her for treatment of atrial fibrillation. This is growing among Americans, largely because the condition – an irregular heartbeat that may cause no symptoms, but is often associated with palpitations, fainting, chest pain, or congestive heart failure – increases with age. 

According to Dr. Bekheit, after the age of 60, atrial fibrillation can affect almost 10 percent of the population, and with each passing year, 3 million more people experience the condition. 

"By 2020, this 3 million will be about 20 million," said Dr. Bekheit. "We have to tackle it in a more effective way." 


BOROUGH ROOTS   

Ironically, said Dr. Bekheit, the sub-specialty of electrophysiology has its roots in the former U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, now known as Bayley Seton Hospital, in Clifton, where physicians began using it on a basic level back in the 1970s. 

"Then the big giants left Staten Island and spread out. There was a big gap," she said. 

When Dr. Bekheit was hired by Staten Island University Hospital and moved from SUNY Downstate Medical Center in 1994, there was no electrophysiology service on Staten Island. 

"Now, however," she said, "we are very high state-of-the-art." 

Dr. Bekheit said she has no regrets in pursuing her practice so intently. "I enjoy my work very much. I would always like to hang on the most recent technology." 

And because the technology is developing so quickly, Dr. Bekheit believes that "very soon, you'll see survival in America will reach higher than the 90s (in terms of age). Even now, I see 97 – almost dancing," she said.

She believes that there is no other country in the world where medicine is practiced better. "It's extremely available" to the common person, she explained – even to visitors from foreign countries, which speaks to American generosity. That's something Dr. Bekheit says, we should all be very proud of. 

The Healers Electrophysiology is the study of electrical impulses to the heart. (Staten Island Advance/Marjorie Hack)
Most of Dr. Bekheit's patients are referrals from other physicians. To reach the Electrophysiology Services and Syncope Center, call  718-663-7008. The lab is located in Staten Island University Hospital, 475 Seaview Ave., Ocean Breeze. 

  
Different treatments 
According to electrophysiologist Dr. Soad Bekheit, in America, about 350,000 people die every year due to the effects of an irregular heart rate. She said different arrhythmias require different treatments. Medications are not great, she said. Ablation, or the use of radio frequencies, works much better. "And we think we can come up with new forms," she said. 

Common solutions 
Pace-makers are frequently deployed when patients present with a slow heartbeat, said Dr. Bekheit. Those who come in with a very fast heart rate require something else, ablation, which involves applying energy to the circuit causing the arrhythmia. If a person has a very weak heart, Dr. Bekheit said that cardiologists and electrophysiologists can apply a device that restores life, like defibrillators. 

Future 
According to Dr. Bekheit, electrophysiology and cardiology are among the fastest growing specialties in terms of development of new technology and treatment strategies. "It's leaping very fast," she said. Just three years ago, for example, she said, researchers were coming up with new syndromes and a patient sometimes has more than one. Understanding how to determine this and then develop a treatment strategy requires the use of highly sensitive EKG (electrocardiogram) devices, genetic mapping and electrophysiology studies. "You can save a lot of lives now," said Dr. Bekheit. 


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