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At St. Clair Hospital, Cardiac MRIs Are Transforming the Diagnosis of Heart Disease
By Nancy Kennedy

A Mt. Lebanon hospital on the cutting edge of advanced cardiology, at a university-hospital level, offering ground breaking, state-of-the-art technology for the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease: that is St. Clair Hospital in 2018, thanks to the addition of a remarkable new cardiac imaging technology and an exceptionally qualified cardiac imaging specialist, Christopher Pray, M.D.

Cardiac MRI is revolutionizing the field of cardiology, and Dr. Pray is uniquely prepared to deliver the benefits and advantages of that transformation to patients in St. Clair Hospital’s service area.

“Cardiac MRI is a new imaging technology that combines the best aspects of echocardiology and nuclear cardiology,” Dr. Pray explains. “It’s a fantastic tool; it uses radio waves, magnets and computer technology to create detailed images of the heart and precise measurements of heart size and function, including the size and functioning of the valves and blood vessels in the chest. It’s as easy for the patient as an x-ray, and is safer than an x-ray, as it does not use any radiation.”

According to Dr. Pray, cardiac MRI allows cardiac imaging specialists like himself to visualize any scarring of the heart muscle that might indicate a prior heart attack or other condition. Cardiac muscle can be scarred not only by heart attacks, but also by viral infections, infiltrative diseases, or autoimmune diseases that can attack the heart. Cardiac MRI is now the preferred diagnostic study for the identification of congenital heart disease and for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the condition that causes thickening of the heart muscle that can lead to heart failure and sudden cardiac arrest. “Before we had cardiac MRI, the only way to acquire this kind of information was by doing a biopsy of the heart muscle, an invasive procedure with greater risk,” Dr. Pray says. “When you have a cardiac MRI, you’ll have an IV but we don’t use any radiation and we don’t use CT contrast, so there is no risk of injury to the kidney.” Cardiac MRI can also detect heart failure, coronary artery disease, and heart aneurysms.

Cardiac MRI imaging takes place at St. Clair’s Outpatient Center in Peters Township, where the Hospital’s most modern MRI scanner has been updated to perform it. The hour-long test is an interactive test, meaning that the patient is awake and responding to directions from the MRI technician. “A regular MRI requires that there be no patient movement. The challenge with cardiac MRI is that the heart is always in motion: it’s beating all the time, and the chest is moving with breathing. This made it challenging to do heart MRIs in the past. New technology plus the patient: technician interaction make it possible now; the tech tells you when to hold your breath, and when to breathe again.”

Many cardiac conditions can be missed by standard diagnostic tests, notes Dr. Pray, but cardiac MRI provides remarkable detail. He can see damage to the heart muscle as soon as a coronary artery is blocked; the Cardiac MRI can even show the edema (fluid infiltrate) of the injured muscle.

Cardiac MRI has such tremendous value to patients, and to their physicians, that the demand for it is expected to increase rapidly. “At St. Clair, we are in on the early stages of this revolutionary development in the diagnosis of heart disease; the indications for cardiac MRI are constantly expanding. Currently, we get referrals from PCPs and cardiologists, mostly, and also from pulmonologists and oncologists. Lung disease can lead to heart disease, and chemotherapy medications can injure and scar the heart. Eventually, cardiac MRI technology is expected to serve as an alternative to nuclear stress tests.”

The availability of cardiac MRI further distinguishes St. Clair among the region’s hospitals, Dr. Pray says. “It’s exceptional to be able to offer this remarkable technology, so close to home. It’s an important advance, and it’s exciting that we are able to provide it here. St. Clair is uniquely situated to provide this service.”

Dr. Pray has extensive training in cardiac imaging. He is a graduate of the State University of New York School of Medicine and completed a residency in internal medicine, followed by a fellowship in cardiology, and then a fellowship in cardiac MRI and advanced imaging. He is considered to be “Level III” trained, meaning that he is qualified to train other cardiologists to interpret cardiac MRIs.

Dr. Pray practices with South Hills Cardiology Associates, Bethel Park. He can be reached at 412-942-7900.

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