New Device Helps Decrease Risk of Stroke

Stephanie Specht's picture
By Stephanie Specht on October 24, 2017

In the U.S. alone more than 2 million people are living with atrial fibrillation (AFib), and as many as 160,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. 

Sandy Houck was one of those 2 million. At 80, Sandy had been dealing with AFib for some time.

AFib, the most common heart rhythm disorder, causes the upper chambers of the heart to quiver or twitch quickly, creating an irregular heartbeat.

Symptoms include heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and fatigue, but the biggest concern with AFib patients is the increased risk of stroke. Studies have shown that patients with atrial fibrillation are five times more likely to have a stroke.

Sandy had suffered three strokes, was at a high risk for falls and bruised quite easily from the blood thinners she was on to help manage her AFib.

Her cardiologist, Richard Constance, M.D., of Heart of Virginia Cardiology, felt that she was a great candidate for a new devicethe WATCHMANwhich would help decrease her risk of stroke and possibly allow her to come off of blood thinners.

Sandy was onboard, so Dr. Constance referred her to Jason Foerst, M.D., director of the Carilion Clinic Structural Heart Program.

According to Dr. Foerst, for those with AFib, there is very chaotic activity in the upper chambers of the heart, or what is known as the atria. Instead of working in sync with the lower chambers of the heart and emptying the blood with every beat, the blood becomes stagnant in the upper chambers, especially inside a pouch called the left atrial appendage or what is called the LAA.

The WATCHMAN, a device about the size of a quarter, is inserted through a vein in the leg up into the heart and implanted in the LAA.

Over time, heart tissue will grow over the WATCHMAN and the LAA will be permanently sealed off, greatly reducing a person’s risk of stroke.

There are no surgical incisions and the patient is under general anesthesia to allow for appropriate imaging and patient comfort. Most patients are observed overnight and discharged the following morning. 

In most cases, patients can stop taking blood thinners about 45 days after having the WATCHMAN implanted.

“It was such an easy procedure,” Sandy recalled. “So far it’s been wonderful.”

After undergoing the procedure, Sandy is back to playing with her grand kids, judging flower competitions and enjoying life without the fear of having another stroke.

“I hope my telling my story will let others know this is a wonderful thing they have come up with,” Sandy said.

Watch the video above to learn more about Sandy's story and the WATCHMAN device.