At 81, Joyce Hutchins doesn’t look her age. “My husband and I like to keep active,” says the Marion woman.
Still, she’s had a few health issues. Among them is atrial fibrillation (AFib)—an irregular heart
rate that can cause blood clots to form in the heart. If a clot travels to the brain, it can lead to a stroke. To reduce that risk, Hutchins, like most patients, relied on a daily blood-thinning medicine called warfarin.
Then in early 2016, Hutchins went to the St. Luke’s Emergency Department. “I wasn’t feeling quite right,” she recalls. “I told the doctor I felt stupid being there. He said you don’t need to feel stupid. You’ve just had a heart attack!”
While hospitalized, Hutchins also learned she had a bleeding ulcer. The condition meant she could no longer take warfarin. “I’d already had a TIA (transient ischemic attack or mini-stroke), I just had a silent heart attack, and I still had AFib,” says Hutchins. “Without the blood thinner, I could have a major stroke on top of everything else.”
Her situation was not unusual. Dr. Mohit Chawla, electrophysiologist with St. Luke’s Hospital – Cardiology, explains, “A significant portion of people who are at high risk of stroke because
of atrial fibrillation cannot be on a blood thinner because they are also high risk for bleeding. In the past, we didn’t have a solution for them, but now we have the Watchman.”
Watchman is a small device placed in the heart. It acts as a barrier to keep clots from entering the bloodstream. Dr. Chawla says, “The Watchman provides the same stroke reduction as blood thinners, but does not have a bleeding risk.”
Hutchins learned about Watchman from her cardiologist, Dr. Richard Kettelkamp, St. Luke’s Hospital – Cardiology. At that time, the procedure was not available in Cedar Rapids, so Hutchins visited Mayo Clinic. “The doctor there explained the procedure and answered our questions,” she says. “He reinforced I would be at greater risk if I did not have the surgery.”
A delay in getting Medicare approval at Mayo put Hutchins in a holding pattern. Then she learned Dr. Chawla was going to start implanting the Watchman device at St. Luke’s. In November 2016, Joyce Hutchins became the second person to receive the implant in Cedar Rapids.
Hutchins was thrilled at the opportunity to pioneer the procedure in her community. “I told doctors at the Mayo Clinic I decided to have the procedure here. I had every confidence in Dr. Chawla.” She adds, “I wasn’t apprehensive at all. I felt every possible precaution was taken prior to the procedure. Dr. Chawla and the team helping him at St. Luke’s were all great!”
Dr. Chawla and St. Luke’s Heart Care team are the only ones performing the Watchman
procedure in Cedar Rapids. “You have to meet very strict criteria before you can embark on this program,” explains Dr. Chawla. “I have the appropriate skill set and received hands-on training with the device.”
Patients must also meet strict criteria to qualify for the procedure. Most candidates are age 75 or older and have a higher than average risk for stroke and bleeding. “From a medical standpoint, the Watchman reduces both the stroke risk and the bleed risk,” Dr. Chawla says. “From the patient standpoint, the benefit is peace of mind.”
Hutchins agrees. “The Watchman reduced my worry that my AFib could cause a stroke. I feel blessed to have had the opportunity I had, the health care team I had, and the outcome I
had. It was a wonderful thing to have done and wonderful people who did it!”