Colorado Springs, Colo. – A heart specialist at UCHealth Memorial Hospital is the first in southern Colorado to implant a new device that not only reduces the risk of strokes for patients with atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat – but also can allow those patients to stop taking powerful blood thinners.
The Watchman device is about the size of a quarter and looks like a tiny umbrella. It was designed to prevent clots from forming in the left atrial appendage by sealing off this section of the heart where most deadly blood clots form in people with atrial fibrillation.
A team from Memorial, led by Dr. Brad Mikaelian, has performed 18 Watchman procedures, and additional patients are being evaluated for eligibility.
Roughly 5 million Americans are living with atrial fibrillation, which is a heart condition where the upper chambers of the heart beat too fast and with an abnormal rhythm. As a result, blood can pool and form clots in the left atrial appendage. If a blood clot forms there, it can travel through an artery to the brain and cause a stroke.
People who have atrial fibrillation – also called AFib – are up to five times more likely to have a stroke than someone without the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Patients with AFib often have had to make a difficult choice: Take blood thinners to prevent a stroke but risk bleeding or stay off blood thinners but run the risk of stroke. “Finally, with Watchman, we’re able to offer people a third option – a way out of that dilemma,” said Mikaelian, an electrophysiologist with UCHealth Memorial’s cardiovascular services team.
Mikaelian added that although blood thinners have been a common therapy in preventing strokes, the medication is not well-tolerated by some patients in the long term, in addition to carrying significant risk for bleeding complications. The Watchman device was approved by the FDA and approved for Medicare coverage specifically for patients who have a high risk of bleeding and a reason to avoid warfarin, a potent blood thinner.
To implant the device, a specialized cardiac team inserts it through a catheter in a vein in the upper leg and guides it to the heart. The device crosses from the right side of the heart to the left side before it is positioned in the correct spot in the left atrial appendage.
The procedure is done under general anesthesia and typically lasts about an hour. Afterward, patients stay in the hospital overnight, and recovery takes about 24 hours. About six weeks after the procedure, the patients are reassessed to determine if the device has successfully closed off the left atrial appendage, and then the patient can reduce or stop taking blood thinners.
Mikaelian said the Watchman technology will benefit a large number of high-risk patients in the Pikes Peak region. Memorial’s association with UCHealth is key in the hospital’s ability to offer the procedure to patients, enabling them to have the best care, close to home, he added.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires that confidential medical data be submitted to a national registry to monitor safety and enable further scientific studies regarding this innovative treatment. Faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine were involved with the creation of this national registry.
For more information about the Watchman procedure or to schedule an appointment, go to uchealth.org/watchman-device or call Memorial Hospital at 719-354-2075.
UCHealth is a Front Range health system that delivers the highest quality patient care with the highest quality patient experience. UCHealth combines Memorial Hospital, Poudre Valley Hospital, Medical Center of the Rockies, University of Colorado Hospital and a network of more than 40 medical clinics into one organization dedicated to health and providing unmatched patient care in the Rocky Mountain West. UCHealth partners with the University of Colorado School of Medicine and numerous community organizations to provide care. Separately, these institutions can continue providing superior care to patients and service to the communities they serve. Together, they push the boundaries of medicine, attracting more research funding, hosting more clinical trials and improving health through innovation.