New device may help stroke patients without risks of blood thinners

The FDA recently approved the Watchman, an implant about the size of a quarter that looks like a tiny parachute with spidery legs, as a method of reducing the risk of stroke for some patients. (KPTV)

Like many Americans 65 and older, Richard Shaffer has an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation, also known as a-fib, that puts him at risk for a stroke.

Shaffer took blood thinners to reduce that risk, but those medicines, in turn, increased his risk of internal bleeding.

An avid horseback rider, Shaffer enjoys long rides but is worried about what would happen if he fell off his horse and bled to death.

He was able to stop taking the blood thinners four months ago, though, after doctors at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center implanted a device in his heart called the Watchman.

The implant is about the size of a quarter and looks like a tiny parachute with spidery legs. The Watchman reduces the ability of the blood to clot and reduces the risk of stroke without adding the risk of bleeding.

Surgeons insert a catheter in the patient's leg and feed the watchman device through that up to the patient's heart.

Recently, FOX 12 caught up with cardio-electrophysiologist Dr. Jonathan Lowy between back to back Watchman surgeries at PeaceHealth. Lowy said the new device solved what seemed like a lose-lose problem for patients.

“Up until this procedure was available we were kind of faced with a dilemma,” he explained. “Put people on blood thinners and protect them from stroke or take the risk of more bleeding?"

Lowy said the risk of bleeding was serious, and could occur in multiple parts of the body, like the brain or gastrointestinal tract.

Elvira Varner, 79, was one of those heart patients who faced the dilemma Lowy mentioned. She has suffered from a-fib and other heart problems.

Varner has also previously had a stomach bleed, and at almost 80 suffers from pain and numbness in her legs.

When Dr. Lowy performed the Watchman surgery on Varner it took a little longer than usual due to her pacemaker.

Still, the minimally-invasive surgery lasted just an hour, and Varner went home the next day. Five days after surgery she felt well enough to visit Horseshoe Lake Park to discuss the procedure.

Varner said she felt weak but that she was getting better. Her daughter and caregiver Jackie Hilby added that she was grateful and hopeful for her mother’s recovery.

"I hope it gives her a better quality of life,” Hilby said. “Just not so worried about her heart and her health so much.”

Doctors in both Europe and Canada have been using the Watchman for five years or more, but the FDA only recently approved the procedure for American doctors.

Doctors like Lowy have been advocating for this procedure for years, and now in the last few months, they've started performing the Watchman surgery.

Lowy hopes the little device will be a game-changer in the treatment of some of his heart patients, not only preventing strokes but also internal bleeds.

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