PINEHURST, NC -- People in the Sandhills who have atrial fibrillation (AFib) that is not related to heart valve disease now have an alternative treatment to blood-thinning medications to prevent a stroke. The minimally invasive WATCHMAN FLX procedure is now available at Reid Heart Center at FirstHealth of the Carolinas in Pinehurst.
“Offering WATCHMAN FLX to our community is a collaborative effort,” said Mark Landers, M.D., a FirstHealth Cardiology electrophysiologist. “Patients have a team of electrophysiologists, structural and interventional cardiologists, anesthesiologists and specially trained support staff at FirstHealth and Pinehurst Medical Clinic working together to administer this new treatment.”
Ker Boyce, M.D., an electrophysiologist with FirstHealth Cardiology-Pinehurst Medical Clinic, added, “Advanced heart therapies like WATCHMAN FLX are usually available only at academic medical centers in larger cities. We are proud to offer this treatment in the Sandhills.”
AFib, an irregular heart rhythm, is a common condition that affects at least 3 to 6 million Americans. “While many people do not have symptoms from AFib or have their symptoms controlled by medication, they are still at risk for a stroke,” said Brandon Williams, M.D., a FirstHealth Cardiology-Pinehurst Medical Clinic electrophysiologist.
Dr. Williams explained that when the heart beats irregularly, blood does not flow correctly and can pool in the heart to form a clot. The blood clot can dislodge and block a blood vessel leading to the brain, causing a stroke.
A common treatment to prevent clots in people who have AFib is medication that thins the blood, allowing it to flow more freely. “While blood-thinners are quite effective in reducing the risk of stroke, many patients cannot or will not tolerate these medications due to bleeding complications, side effects, financial constraints and other issues,” Dr. Landers said.
AFib can be caused by heart valve problems or non-valvular factors such as exposure to heart stimulants (alcohol or tobacco), sleep apnea, high blood pressure, lung problems, hyperthyroidism or stress from severe illness such as pneumonia.
“For patients who have non-valvular AFib and can’t take blood thinners, the WATCHMAN FLX device is a safe and effective alternative to decrease their risk of strokes,” said Dr. Boyce.
Most blood clots that cause strokes start in a pocket in the heart called the left atrial appendage. The WATCHMAN FLX device permanently closes off this pocket to prevent clots from forming there. Without clots in this part of the heart, the risk of stroke is less.
“The procedure to implant WATCHMAN FLX device does not require open-heart surgery and takes about an hour,” said FirstHealth structural and interventional cardiologist Sun Moon Kim, M.D. He explained that he inserts a catheter into the upper leg (groin area) and guides the WATCHMAN FLX device through a blood vessel to the left atrial appendage. Once in the appendage, the device expands to the size of a quarter and blocks off the appendage. Most patients stay in the hospital overnight and resume work and normal activities within a few days.
Eventually, the heart’s tissue grows over the device to form a seal against clots, eliminating the need for long-term blood thinners.
Patients must undergo tests to determine if they are candidates for the WATCHMAN FLX. After the procedure, they return to FirstHealth for tests to make sure the device is working properly. “The fact that we can offer WATCHMAN FLX close to home is a tremendous advantage since patients need to visit us several times to ensure the best possible result,” said Dr. Williams.
WATCHMAN FLX is one of many leading-edge therapies available at FirstHealth. “This procedure adds to our already expansive options for the care and treatment of patients with atrial fibrillation,” Dr. Williams said.
FirstHealth offers advanced heart and vascular care at Reid Heart Center in Pinehurst and seven cardiology clinics throughout the Sandhills. For more information, visit www.firsthealth.org/watchman or call (910) 715-1868.