Advanced Procedure Provided New Hope for His AFib Treatment
Jerry Lynch qualified for and had a new, minimally invasive procedure – the Watchman™ Implant – that can help some patients reduce the risk of stroke and their dependence on medication.
Jerry Lynch was first diagnosed with atrial fibrillation (AFib) in May of 2015. For Lynch, who continued to be physically active after retirement, his only complaint was fatigue.
Lynch had brought some tomato plants home to Michigan from Florida and was planting them. “After only a half hour of work, my pulse was at 140-160 and I was exhausted,” he said. “I was so tired I went in the house and had to have my wife help me take off my shirt.”
When his pulse did not slow down, he called his daughter who works as an imaging professional in cardiology at MidMichigan Health in Clare and asked for her advice. “She said if it didn’t drop, I needed to seek help,” he said.
Hours later, he and his wife, Margaret, made a pre-dawn trip to the emergency department at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland. Lynch had kept a written record of his heart rate so he could give the doctors hard data, not just a description. “They were a little surprised but were happy to have the stats,” he said.
They diagnosed Lynch with atrial fibrillation. He was hospitalized and underwent cardioversion. During this procedure, while the patient is anesthetized, an electric shock is administered through a defibrillator to slow down or regulate their heartbeat.
AFib is a heart condition where the upper chambers of the heart (atrium) beat too fast and with irregular rhythm (fibrillation). It is the most common cardiac arrhythmia, currently affecting more than five million Americans. Twenty percent of all strokes occur in patients with AFib, and AFib-related strokes are more frequently fatal and disabling. Many people with AFib have few, if any, symptoms.
“After that, I was put on a blood thinner,” he said. For two years, all was well. “I felt really good until I started feeling tired again this past summer.”
Blood-thinning medication is the most common treatment to reduce stroke risk in patients with AFib. While effective at preventing stokes, blood thinners also carry potential risks including the risk of gastrointestinal bleeding such as stomach bleeds and rectal bleeding. That is exactly what happened to 76-year-old Lynch in August.
“It was a very bad bleed and I ended up in the emergency department,” he said. “The doc looked at me and said, ‘Jerry, you’re in AFib.’ Looking back, I realized I had been having symptoms.”
Lynch had blamed the weariness on age. “After golfing, I was really tired. I’d take an afternoon nap and still run out of gas,” he said. “Even though I didn’t work on a lot of projects and didn’t exert myself, I was still really tired. That was my only symptom: fatigue. Everything else was fine.”
Fortunately for Lynch, members of MidMichigan Health’s comprehensive Heart and Vascular Program recently began performing a new minimally invasive procedure to prevent stroke in patients with AFib. This new advanced heart procedure, referred to as the Watchman™ Implant, is offered at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland and provides an alternative treatment to people like Lynch.
His AFib was not caused by a heart valve problem and, while he could tolerate blood thinners, he needed a long-term alternative.
The Watchman implant closes off an area of the heart called the left atrial appendage. By closing it off, blood clots formed in the appendage cannot enter the blood stream and potentially cause a stroke. Over time, patients are also able to stop taking blood thinners which decreases their bleeding risk.
After doctors told him about the new procedure, Lynch again talked to his daughter who encouraged him to consider it. “She had actually observed the operation a couple of weeks before I had the bleed,” he said. “She said, ‘Dad if they say you’re a candidate for this, go for it.”’
As they approached the October 4 surgery date, the couple felt knowledgeable and confident. They were familiar with the cardiovascular services available at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland because Margaret had a heart procedure done there in 2013. “Also, the doctors had thoroughly explained everything that would happen and what could happen,” Lynch said.
Because of the complexity, this advanced procedure requires the involvement of a multi-disciplinary team of specialists representing multiple areas of cardiology. Watchman team members included Cardiologist/ Cardiac Imaging Specialists Susan Sallach, M.D., Jeffrey Martindale, D.O., and Waleed Doghmi, M.D; Electrophysiologist Nilofar Islam, M.D.; and Interventional Cardiologist Maged Rizk, M.D., Ph.D.
Lynch’s team of doctors began the procedure at noon. “I woke up at 1:30 or 2 – it didn’t take long at all,” he said. He rested the remainder of the day and spent the night at the Medical Center. “They did a few more tests the next day. Then the physician’s assistant came in and said everything looked good so I went home later that afternoon.
“I had really good experience at the hospital – everyone was just great,” he said. “I had no pain or anything like that. I just wanted to get right back to doing everything.”
His wife made sure her husband took his recovery slow and easy. “She made sure I followed orders,” Lynch said. “I had no issues. I was on a different blood thinner for a while after surgery and that took a lot of monitoring but eventually, they hit on the right dose.”
He was taking other medication as well, including one to pace his heart rate, which was also closely watched. “They were always on top of where we are and what we need to do,” Lynch said. “Now, I’m certainly not as tired and my heart rate is getting better all the time.”
Surgery did not disrupt the couple’s usual routine of living in Florida for six months. “We flew home for the follow-up on November 15,” he said. “I’ll go back in May for further follow-up. Hopefully they can then take me off a couple of the meds. I’m looking forward to being taken off the blood thinner – I tend to be a little clumsy so I bruise.”
“For other people who meet the criteria for the Watchman procedure, I would tell them go for it and not be afraid,” Lynch said. “It has just been fantastic for me.”
Symptomatic AFib can also be treated through an ablation procedure performed by electrophysiologists at MidMichigan Medical Center - Midland. Those who would like more information on the Watchman Left Atrial Appendage Closure Implant may visit www.midmichigan.org/watchman or call (989) 794-5200.