New technology helps reduce stroke risk for AFib patients

September 22, 2015 | by Mark Goodwin, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Five years ago, one of our patients, a Naperville resident and 30-year veteran realtor Carol Cobb, was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib), a common heart rhythm problem. AFib comes with a five-fold increased risk of stroke caused by a blood clot, and an AFib-related stroke is more often disabling or fatal.

To reduce her stroke risk, Cobb had been taking the blood-thinning medication Coumadin (a brand of warfarin). But after she developed some skin discoloration, she started to have mixed feelings about taking the drug, which can also cause balance issues, stomach bleeding and other problems.

"I worried about the long-term effects of being on Coumadin and I prayed something would be developed to replace [the] medication," said Cobb. This is a common concern my colleagues and I hear from AFib patients who are treated with an anticoagulant. We needed to look at other options.

In April 2015, Edward Hospital became the first community hospital in Illinois to offer the WATCHMANTM device to treat certain AFib patients — and Cobb was one of them.

During the catheter-based implant procedure, we insert the WATCHMAN device into a vein in the leg, where it’s guided to a pouch in the heart called the left atrial appendage. This is the area where blood tends to pool and form stroke-causing blood clots in people with AFib. Once the device is in place, its parachute-like component is opened to about the size of a quarter. This seals off the area, preventing blood clots from traveling through the blood stream to the brain where they can cause a stroke.

For Cobb’s WATCHMAN procedure, our physician team included me, Moeen Saleem, MD, a specialist in cardiac electrophysiology, and Stanley Clark, MD, a cardiovascular disease specialist. Dr. Clark operated the imaging technology that helped guide and monitor the WATCHMAN implant.

Cobb’s procedure lasted about an hour and she was discharged from the hospital the next day. About two months later, she got the news she had been waiting for — follow-up imaging tests showed WATCHMAN did seal off her left atrial appendage and she could stop taking Coumadin. As an interim step, she'll take another blood-thinning medication called Plavix, but probably only for about six months.

I believe within the next three to five years, the WATCHMAN technology will be considered one of the most significant developments in the treatment of AFib. Edward is currently one of only a few hospitals in the country to offer the implants.

Find out if you’re at risk for heart disease. Take a free five-minute test that could save your life.

Learn more about heart care at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

Mark Goodwin, MD is medical director of Edward Heart Hospital's Cardiac Catheterization Lab, and an interventional cardiologist with Edward and with Midwest Heart-Advocate Medical Group.

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