Only three hospitals in the northwest have the program, and St. Alphonsus is the only one in Idaho. And it's changing the game for people who otherwise might be running out of time.
High cholesterol can be a killer. It can lead to heart disease, heart attack and stroke. And there are two major ways you can get it: through lifestyle, or through genetics.
"Many of us don't know our family history," says Dr. J. Antonio Lopez, director of the Saint Alphonsus apheresis program.
And for some people with extremely high LDL cholesterol, also known as bad cholesterol, sometimes medication alone isn't enough. That's where apheresis comes in.
"It's a major game changer," says Lopez.
The apheresis program at Saint Alphonsus started just four months ago. Basically, the program involves a machine that literally cleans blood of bad cholesterol. A tube removes blood from one arm, runs it through a machine, extracts LDL, and then pumps the cleaned blood back into the body through the other arm.
Each treatment takes up to three hours and has to be repeated twice a month as the LDL continues to be manufactured by the body.
"In the old days we used to see generation to generation," says Lopez. "Your uncle has a heart attack, your cousin has a heart attack. Now we have intervention. We have excellent medication, but these patients have levels that are quite high. Medications themselves in addition to diet changes are not enough to lower these levels, and this is where this procedure is very helpful."
Ideal levels for LDL cholesterol are under 100. But patients on the Saint Alphonsus apheresis program are higher than 220, even with maxed out medication, and improved diet and exercise.
"Basically, these patients felt their longevity was early death," says Lopez. "Now they have hope they can live a long life without symptoms, although they have to come in two to three hours every two weeks for the procedure. This is a lifesaver."
But one misconception is that only overweight people have high cholesterol. That's just not the case.
Long distance runner Jim Fixx died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52.
An autopsy revealed one artery in his heart was blocked 95 percent. A second artery was clogged 85 percent. And a third was clogged 70 percent. Clogged arteries come from a buildup of plaque. And a significant contributor to plaque is high cholesterol. Imagine your risk if you don't run marathons.
"We're a society that's predisposed for coronary disease based on lifestyle," says Lopez. "We're a supersize society, we're inactive, and a lot of us don't know what our cholesterol levels are. We should have a goal for prevention of heart attack and stroke by knowing our numbers. In addition to lifestyle, diet and exercise, there are medications to reduce the risk."
"Fortunately for patients who have very high risk, hereditary cholesterol patients, this is an important intervention to reduce their risk of heart attack."
Lopez suggests knowing your family history, knowing your cholesterol numbers, and knowing there's something you can do, no matter your situation, to increase your chances of a long and healthy life.
Saint Alphonsus Apheresis Program