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How Marie Guion-Johnson Turned Tragedy Into A Life-Saving Device

Following the unexpected death of her husband at 41, Guion-Johnson developed a heart monitor to detect blockages other tests miss.

In 2002, Marie Guion-Johnson’s 41-year-old husband, Rob, died after going into cardiac arrest while swimming. That experience led Guion-Johnson to start the company Aum Cardiovascular and invent the CADence, a small device that a doctor holds over a patient’s chest to detect blockages often missed by other tests (it sends data to a computer via Bluetooth; no treadmill or other medical equipment is needed). Still in clinical trials, it could hit the U.S. market in 2016.

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How did you come to create this device?

When Rob died, I was working on a PhD in engineering and developing a computerized stethoscope system that had the capability to record [heart sounds]. I had used Rob as a test subject and found he had a weird heart sound. His GP ordered a stress test. She said, “You’re in great shape.” That was in January 2002; he died in October. After he died, it occurred to me that there had to be something [indicating a heart problem] in the data I collected.

What did you discover?

I did a plot of his data and a startling pattern emerged. I realized, This is where the problem was. It was Dock’s murmur– a sound heard when there’s a blockage in the left anterior descending coronary artery. Physicians can hear it sometimes, but not always. My data indicated that’s what he had.

How did you turn that into a product?

After studying hemodynamics in Italy, I went to the Stanford Biodesign Program to learn how to start a company. We got to work alongside people who were successful in medical devices. I was then recruited to run a think tank of engineers and medical doctors. The whole time I had been spending my own money to work on my stethoscope. Then, in 2010, I won a grant. Suddenly I had the cash to do real work. We became a proper company, and I started raising money and getting the product ready for clinical studies.

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What’s noteworthy about the design?

We needed a cool form factor. A guy from IDEO introduced me to Scott Wilson of Minimal Design. His mother had died of sudden cardiac arrest, and his baby daughter was born with heart problems, so he’s very committed to this product. A normal stress test involves a treadmill, cables, computers, etc. CADence is elegant–you can hold it in your hand. It’s very intuitive. It uploads to a computer via Bluetooth and then creates a PDF that can be sent to a doctor. It takes two minutes and is about a tenth of the cost of a traditional stress test.

What does the company’s name mean?

Aum is an ancient Sanskrit symbol that refers to a low humming sound. It’s the same sound you hear from diseased coronary arteries. But when I’m talking to potential financial backers, I say it means “Assets Under Management.”

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