JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Donna Stephens loves playing bingo a couple of times a week. But more than 25 years of heart problems has made it difficult to go even once a week.
She’s had a couple of heart attacks and has lived with atrial fibrillation (Afib), which is a quivering or irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart complications. In one month in 2007, Stephens had both a stroke and a heart attack.
She’s been on various blood thinning medications and has had bleeding problems. She was admitted to Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville in March where she met Ruby Satpathy, MD, FACC, FSCAI, interventional cardiologist and Structural Heart director at Baptist Heart Specialists. Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville is among the first hospitals in the region to offer patients with Afib another option to long-term blood thinning medication. The WATCHMAN™ Left Atrial Appendage Closure (LAAC) Implant helps reduce the risk of stroke by deploying a small implant to seal off the left atrial appendage and prevent blood clots from entering the bloodstream and potentially causing a stroke.
Stephens was one of the first patients at Baptist Jacksonville to receive the WATCHMAN implant.
Every 40 seconds in the U.S. someone has a stroke and yet about 80 percent of strokes are considered preventable. An estimated five million Americans are affected by Afib and have five times greater risk of stroke.
“Atrial fibrillation can cause blood to pool and form clots in the left atrium. This increases stroke risk. For patients with non-valvular atrial fibrillation, the left atrial appendage is believed to be the source of the majority of stroke-causing blood clots,” Dr. Satpathy said.
Blood clots can break loose and travel into the blood stream to the brain and other parts of the body. The WATCHMAN device is implanted through a catheter that is inserted in the femoral vein in the leg. By closing off the left atrial appendage, the risk of stroke will be reduced and patients will be able to stop taking blood thinners, which in turn can reduce the risk of bleeding.
“This is an excellent minimally invasive procedure. There are no incisions and the patient’s risk for recurrent stroke and bleeding are significantly reduced,” Dr. Satpathy said. “People on blood thinners are susceptible to spontaneous gastrointestinal bleeding or intracranial bleeding and are often repeatedly admitted to the hospital and face having blood infusions.”
To qualify for the procedure, a person must be diagnosed with Afib that is not caused by a heart valve issue; have an increased risk of stroke; have high risk for bleeding or have an intolerance or allergy to blood thinners.
Stephens, 71, of Jacksonville, was glad there was an alternative to blood thinners and was pleased she did not need open-heart surgery.
“Dr. Satpathy said I was at high risk for another stroke. I just love her dearly. I’m really glad I met her,” Stephens said. “I feel a lot better than I did a month before the procedure. I was very tired and couldn’t do anything. Now I feel good.”
Implanting the WATCHMAN device is a one-time procedure that usually lasts about an hour. Following the procedure, patients typically stay in the hospital for 24 hours and need a short duration of blood thinners (usually six weeks).
“At Baptist Heart Specialists, all patients who are evaluated for a possible left atrial appendage closure device are seen in the Structural Heart Clinic by both a structural heart physician and a cardiac electrophysiologist to make sure that the patient’s atrial fibrillation rhythm problem, as well as the risk of stroke, is treated optimally,” said Scott Lee, MD, cardiac electrophysiologist with Baptist Heart Specialists and director of Electrophysiology services.
“Baptist Heart Specialists was the first group in Northeast Florida to offer both the Watchman and the Lariat left atrial appendage closure procedures,” Dr. Lee added. “Both devices close off the left atrial appendage but in different ways. If patients are found to be a suitable candidate for a closure procedure, they will receive the method that is best for their anatomy and situation. In addition, Baptist Heart Specialists cardiac electrophysiologists offer the most advanced therapies available for the direct treatment of atrial fibrillation.”
Left Atrial Appendage Closure surgeries have been performed at Baptist Jacksonville since March 2016 with excellent results, Dr. Satpathy said. Dr. Satpathy has prior experience with both WATCHMAN and Lariat and was part of the research study that led to the Food and Drug Administration approval.
The WATCHMAN Implant has been approved in Europe since 2005 and was FDA-approved in the U.S. in 2015.