Kurt Schmidt was tired of being on a blood thinner.
Diagnosed with atrial fibrillation—a heart condition that causes irregular heartbeats—Schmidt had already suffered one stroke related to the condition. His blood thinner medication reduced his risk for another stroke, but the potential for bleeding complications made him uneasy. He was scared he might get hurt playing with his grandchildren or doing chores. He had already fallen several times and hit his head.
So last year, the 67-year-old Eden Prairie man with atrial fibrillation decided he needed a change and spoke with his cardiologist. During that conversation, he learned of a heart procedure called a left atrial appendage closure, which could eliminate the long-term need for a blood thinner. University of Minnesota Health Heart Care experts at Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina perform the procedure using a new, implantable device called the Watchman.™
The procedure and the minimally invasive device held appeal for Schmidt. Then Schmidt learned that—if he went forward with it—he’d be the first one to receive a Watchman™ through University of Minnesota Health.
“I said, ‘I don’t care. That’s fine with me. Let’s give it a shot,’” Schmidt said.
In November 2016, Schmidt became the first person at University of Minnesota Health to successfully receive a Watchman™ device, which has allowed him to stop taking a blood thinner. Fast forward one year, and University of Minnesota Health physicians have hit a new milestone: Teams have implanted the devices in 50 patients.
“We’ve been quite successful,” said Cardiac Electrophysiologist Quan Pham, MD, who led Schmidt’s procedure. “In the past, atrial fibrillation patients didn’t have any options besides blood thinners. We’re excited to be part of this effort to give patients another alternative.”
Atrial fibrillation is a common condition that causes the upper chambers of the heart to “quiver.” In atrial fibrillation patients, potentially dangerous blood clots often form in an area of the heart known as the left atrial appendage (LAA), which is a small pouch in the muscle wall of the heart’s left atrium. Once formed, the clots can dislodge from the heart and travel to the brain, leading to a stroke. Blood thinners like warfarin reduce clotting, which lowers a person’s risk for stroke—but they also can come with serious complications, such as excessive bleeding or bleeding in the brain.
The Watchman™ is available for patients with non-valvular atrial fibrillation who are on a blood thinner to reduce the risk of stroke. The device works by blocking off—or occluding—the LAA, preventing blood from entering the space and keeping clots from forming.
To implant the device in a patient’s heart, Pham and his team insert the device via a catheter in the right femoral vein. They thread the Watchman™ through the patient’s blood vessels to the heart. Like an umbrella, the device opens as the cardiologists pull the catheter back, fitting snugly over the opening to the opening to the left atrial appendage.
“The whole procedure takes only an hour, maybe 45 minutes,” Pham said. “Then the next day, we send patients home with just a small bandage.”
The procedure has given Kurt Schmidt some peace of mind. He was able to go off his blood thinner six weeks after the procedure and will only have to take low-dose aspirin from now on.
“I’m able to play with the grandkids—I play sports with them,” he said. “I feel much more comfortable. The peace of mind is well worth it.”
On Christmas day last year, Schmidt walked down his driveway to get the newspaper when he slipped and fell and hit his head. Before the Watchman™, Schmidt would’ve been concerned by the potential for uncontrollable bleeding.
Now, however?“I wasn’t worried at all about it,” he said. “My wife made sure I didn’t have a concussion, we got in the car and we went to my niece’s for Christmas. That wouldn’t have happened without the Watchman.”