updated 9/29/2004 7:01:48 PM ET 2004-09-29T23:01:48

Hundreds of doctors watched on live video as Italian surgeons replaced a man’s heart valve without cutting open his chest. Then something went wrong.

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The valve was in place, but his heart was failing as the live telecast to Washington ended. Two hours later, the 77-year-old died in a Milan hospital.

The death, telecast to doctors gathered here for an international meeting, was not the first associated with this cutting-edge experiment, which is offered as a last option to patients so sick they couldn’t survive standard open-heart surgery.

But it illustrates the hazards of broadcasting straight from the operating room, a popular way of teaching new techniques to doctors at medical meetings.

“We agonize” when the patients fare badly, said Dr. Martin Leon, chairman of the Cardiovascular Research Foundation that runs the international meeting on minimally invasive heart treatments.

But, “with each complication, we learn what to do next time,” Leon added as he described Monday’s telecast in an interview. “We show the most difficult techniques. We challenge ourselves. We have to, or physicians are not going to learn.”

Second death in history of conference
It was the second death during 500 live operations telecast over the years at this prestigious heart meeting, he said.

California-based Edwards LifeSciences is one of several companies trying to develop less grueling heart valve replacement, by threading new valves through a hole in a leg artery instead of cutting open the chest.

Complications began immediately Monday as Milan’s Dr. Antonio Colombo, a leader in the field, implanted the Edwards valve. Among them: severe blood leakage in a spot the experimental valve had passed through.

In an interview Wednesday, Colombo said an autopsy found the new valve was properly working and hadn’t caused the blood leak, but couldn’t determine cause of death.

But Colombo stressed that overall, the method is promising. Monday’s death is the third among about 30 study participants so far, people already near death from their inoperable valve disease, he said.

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