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Surgical "circuit breakers" to halt aberrent electrical impulses in the heart are a promising way to control a serious heart rhythm problem that endangers more than 1 million people in the United States, according to a local surgeon.

In a press conference at LDS Hospital Monday, Dr. Roger C. Millar discussed surgery he has performed on two patients - a man and a woman who are two of only four people to get such an operation west of the Mississippi River.The debilitating atrial fibrillation that plagued Betsy English, 58, of Mount Pleasant, and Richard Wheatley, of Pocatello has not returned since Millar performed the operation on them in March. The procedure is called the "maze" operation because a maze of incisions across the surface of the upper chambers of the heart prevents electrical impulses from recirculating and reinforcing themselves and thereby causing rapid irregular heartbeat.

Fibrillation often leads to strokes or blood clots if not treated; but, for a large proportion of people with the disorder, drugs do not work very long.

Wheatley said he repeatedly went into such severe arrhythmias that he would be bedridden or would even blank out. Some drugs would work for a time, then the problem would reoccur and another drug would be tried.

English said, "I always called it the bad rhythm. I would get it periodically."

The arrhythmia would hit every week or 10 days, sapping her energy and creating great anxiety in herself and her husband about whether this would be the time she had a stroke.

She was in intensive care for 21/2 days after the operation, and by the end of seven or eight weeks "I really felt as though I hadn't had the procedure done."

She had no pain and no further disabilities.

Asked whether there were any side effects, Wheatley said, "I haven't had any."

English then said, "Only good side effects. No more arrhyth-mias."

Millar said that during the operation the patient is on the heart-lung machine and exposed to about a 1 percent risk of death. The atrial appendages are cut off and the heart is cut with a maze of incisions. The operation could be valuable for even older people who may be at risk of stroke, he said. As many as 11 percent of people over 65 may have atrial fibrillation.

Most patients with the problem can be treated with medication alone, but some cannot. The procedure was pioneered by Dr. James L. Cox in St. Louis, Mo., with whom Millar trained.