When Jeanne St. Clair first experienced the abnormal and fast heartbeats caused by atrial fibrillation (A-fib) almost 15 years ago, she thought she was having panic attacks. After suffering for several years, she was diagnosed with A-fib. This was the beginning of another struggle—one that lasted for almost a decade.
“Blood thinners never worked for me,” said St. Clair, now 77. Atrial fibrillation, the most common type of cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), affects nearly three million Americans. Along with experiencing the chaotic beating of the upper chambers of the heart, people who live with A-fib are also at a higher risk of stroke. For St. Clair as for many with A-fib, this meant she faced a lifetime on blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin, to keep blood clots from forming in her heart and traveling to her brain, causing a stroke.
Though blood thinners greatly reduce stroke risk, they come with many downsides, especially for the elderly, such as an increased risk of major bleeding. St. Clair battled for years to find a blood-thinning medication that she could tolerate and that wasn’t too expensive. She worried, too, about the side effects and dangers of the drug therapy. “I am very clumsy,” she joked, “so had to be really careful with knives.” Finally, she decided on her own to go off the blood thinners entirely.
Since then, St. Clair was “always afraid I’d have an A-fib attack, which really wiped me out” and also worried about her increased stroke risk, which was about five times higher than those without the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But in 2015, she got new hope: the FDA approved the WATCHMAN™ Left Atrial Appendage Closure Device. Her doctors at St. Luke’s—the only providers in Idaho approved to perform the procedure—could now offer her an alternative to blood thinners.
“For people who are appropriate candidates, like Jeanne, we can reduce their risk of stroke and may eliminate their need for blood-thinning medication over time,” said Dr. Marcos Daccarett, clinical medical director of St. Luke’s Clinic – Idaho Cardiology Associates Heart Rhythm Center.
“I was brave,” St. Clair said about being the first local patient to receive the Watchman device, which seals off the left atrial appendage, where most blood clots form in people with A-fib. “I’m really glad it all worked out.” She is extremely thankful that she was a good candidate for the procedure.
The umbrella-shaped Watchman is about the size of a quarter. On January 13, Dr. Daccarett implanted the device in St. Clair’s heart during a procedure that lasted about an hour. After a 24-hour hospital stay, she was home again. Like most patients who receive the Watchman, St. Clair was on the blood thinner Coumadin® (warfarin) for 45 days, followed by six months on another blood-thinner, Plavix (clopidogrel), and a baby aspirin. Once the six months are up, St. Clair will take only a daily baby aspirin.
“I’m so lucky,” she said. After so many years, it is a relief not to worry about her stroke risk without suffering through the side effects of blood thinners. She noted that the experience was very easy, too, and that she had zero problems afterward. “Nurses are wonderful, special people,” she said about her care at St. Luke’s. She feels fortunate to have had “really good doctors that are friendly, too.”
“I wish everyone could do it,” St. Clair concluded. She is happy to be back taking care of her house and cooking—though she still plans to be careful with knives.
To learn more about A-fib and the Watchman, talk with your doctor or call St. Luke’s Clinic – Idaho Cardiology Associates Heart Rhythm Center at (208) 322-1680.
Stacie Rice is a freelance writer who contributes to St. Luke’s news blogs.