COLORADO SPRINGS – As part of AFib Awareness Month, we’re talking about a fairly new procedure called The Watchman — an FDA-approved device that is placed in the heart to seal off the left atrial appendage, where blood clots can form in people with atrial fibrillation, bringing a high risk of stroke.
Many people with AFib are on powerful blood thinners to prevent clots, and the real wonder of The Watchman is that patients who undergo the Watchman procedure have a very high chance of eventually coming off the medication. While blood thinners work to prevent a stroke, they also bring many worries. Besides the dangers of bleeding, blood thinners can also make people feel weak and dizzy, says Dr. Brad Mikaelian, a cardiac electrophysiologist at UCHealth Memorial Hospital.
“In Colorado, patients are very active and want to go rock climbing and mountain biking, and are worried about a crash or an accident. If you’re taking blood thinners, that can that lead to big problems.”
Dr. Peter Schunk is a retired Colorado Springs eye doctor. He has kept a close eye on his heart health for the last 20 years after getting a pacemaker. Dr. Schunk energetically exclaims, “I’m 82 years old now!” He’s still going strong and recently was the 100th Watchman case for UCHealth Memorial physicians. Memorial began offering the procedure a year ago.
Dr. Mikaelian performed Dr. Schunk’s procedure. “A lot of patients with AFib don’t feel it. Dr. Schunk didn’t feel it either, but whether you feel it or not, the risk for stroke is still there. Peter went on blood thinner medications, and had some issues with them. He was also concerned about the long-term risks of being on those medications.”
Peter recalls, “I went to see Dr. Mikaelian and he told me the dangers (of blood thinners) – if you cut yourself accidentally, you bleed a lot. But the main concern that made me look at the Watchman, was if a clot were to break loose (in the heart) it goes to your brain and causes a stroke. Those were the two main reasons that I decided to have the Watchman procedure.”
Peter says the procedure was relatively painless and he is honored to have been the 100th case for UCHealth Memorial. “I think that’s wonderful – I really do. Anybody out there who needs this done, I highly recommend doing it. My quality of life is good, I have three kids and grandchildren from them all. I have a wife and we have a good life here in the Springs. We play golf, we work out and everything is good.”
Doctor Mikaelian says Dr. Schunk is on track to permanently come off blood thinners in the near future. It will all depend on what’s found in future follow-up visits, but it’s fair to say the odds are in his favor.
“We have had over a hundred patients have this procedure and I’m very happy to say all the patients that have had the Watchman procedure and their follow up visit have been able to come off of blood thinners, for the long term. Every patient.”
If you have any questions about atrial fibrillation, follow up with your doctor, and if you think you might be a candidate for the Watchman procedure or have questions about it, you can call the UCHealth cardiovascular team at 719-365-1306.