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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

After taser shot, fugitive’s irregular heartbeat becomes normal

May 27, 2008, 2:25 pm
Jacob Goldstein, Wall Street Journal Health Blog

A 28-year-old man with a history of mental problems fled from the cops and spent 40 minutes hiding in a lake before they collared him and hauled him to the ER.

His body temperature had fallen to a chilly 89 degrees. Docs found speed and cocaine in his blood, and an ECG showed an irregular heartbeat.

Then things turned ugly. The guy got agitated, ripped off his electrodes and tried to pull out his IV. A cop stepped in and gave him a jolt to the chest with a Taser, and the suspect’s heart soon went back into a normal rhythm.

We’ve seen previous reports from the U.S. and Canada of people dying after being shot by a Taser, with some suggestion that it may be especially common in patients on illicit drugs.

But there’s still a debate over whether Tasers can be deadly. Some studies suggest that the devices may be able to affect the heart, but Taser International cites other studies that show they don’t.

The case report published today in the Annals of Emergency Medicine is the first time we’ve heard of someone’s heart possibly being knocked back into a healthy rhythm by the device. The young man’s heart was in atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the upper chambers of the heart quiver rather than beating properly. The larger lower chambers of his heart were beating 145 times a minute, which is abnormally fast.

That’s why the folks in the Hartford Hospital ER, where the true crime drama unfolded, called in Kyle Richards, a cardiology fellow who is the first author of the case report. In an interview this afternoon, Richards told the Health Blog the patient was “remarkably unhappy” to be in the ER, and grew combative. Richards called in security as the man pulled off the electrodes that were monitoring his heart. That was when the officer Tasered the patient. The hospital staff quickly reattached the electrodes and saw that his heart was in a normal rhythm.

The whole thing took about two minutes, Richards said. “The time course is so close is that it makes the Taser shock more likely as a cause of his conversion” back to a normal rhythm, Richards said. But he added that the case isn’t clear proof that the Taser was the cause of the change, which might also have been the result of his treatment with a beta blocker or may simply have occurred spontaneously.

Peter Holran, Taser’s vice president for public relations, told the Health Blog that there are many possible causes for converting from atrial fibrillation to a normal rhythm. “The timing could suggest that there were some effects of the electric shock, but we just don’t see that in any other studies,” he said. Holran added that the company’s scientific advisory board is reviewing the case report.

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