In May 2013, Andrew Josephson, 23, was clearing a spot in his parents’ basement for his college gear, and he stumbled upon a mysterious old set of CDs. The disc jacket read “Heart Sounds and Murmurs, by Daniel Mason, MD.” Mason was Andrew’s grandfather.
The CDs were accompanied by a booklet, the size of a CD case, which explained that the discs contained the sounds of 125 different heartbeats, some indicating rare heart conditions. Dr. Mason, who passed away at 92 in 2011, had recorded them throughout his 50-year career as a prominent Philadelphia cardiologist.
These should be heard, Andrew thought.
That summer, Andrew, a recent graduate of Lehigh University with a biochemistry degree, bought books on computer coding and, ensconced in his family’s summer home on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, taught himself how to write a mobile app of heart sounds for smartphones. “I was lifeguarding all day, then writing code until 1 a.m.,” says Andrew.
The program used an iPhone microphone to record a heartbeat and then match it with Dr. Mason’s recordings to determine if the beat was irregular.
By July, Andrew had created a prototype, which he first tried on his own heart. As he expected, it registered that his heartbeat was normal.
The heartbeat of his father, Jeffrey, also registered normal, as did those of his sister Molly and the neighbors and friends he tested. But when Andrew used the app to test his mother, Tina, her heart sound came up abnormal. He recorded it several more times, and each time, the app produced the same outcome.
“At some point, you’re going to get that result,” he says now. “But I would rather it not have been my mom.”
Tina herself was skeptical. “This can’t be right,” she said to Andrew. “I’m fine.” At 54, Tina, a family doctor, was fit and felt well; she was not a textbook candidate for heart problems. But months later on a family ski trip, Tina noticed she was exhausted at the end of each run. Her mind returned to the irregular reading she’d received from Andrew’s app. What if it was right? she wondered.
At home, Andrew gave his mother another test with the app. Again, it registered an abnormal reading. Now Tina was convinced she should see her doctor.
A week later, tests revealed that Tina was suffering from mitral valve regurgitation, a serious disorder that prevents a heart valve from shutting properly. Left untreated, the condition can cause heart failure.
When Tina told her doctor that her son’s smartphone app had persuaded her to seek him out, “he was amazed,” Tina says.
Later, when Tina showed a video of her echocardiogram to Jeffrey and Andrew, they saw an image of a “colored jet of blood going the wrong way,” says Andrew. “When I saw what the iPhone was picking up, the possible impact of the app really hit me.”
In March, Tina underwent successful open-heart surgery. She’s now back at work seeing patients, and she’s playing tennis, running, and cycling again.
Andrew’s initial curiosity about his grandfather’s recordings and his tenacity in making the app astound Tina. “I’m just very lucky,” she says. “My son saved my life.”