Story by: Franciscan Health

NORTHWEST INDIANA — A procedure offered at Franciscan Health Crown Point is allowing cardiac patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib) to eliminate the use of blood thinners and live more active lifestyles.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), AFib is the most common type of irregular heartbeat. The CDC estimates 6 million Americans have Afib, which significantly increases the risk of stroke.

One of the primary treatments for AFib is blood thinners, which are used to prevent blood clots that travel to the brain and cause strokes. While blood thinners are effective, they come with bleeding risks.

“When you have Afib, you’re stuck on blood thinners, sometimes forever,” said Franciscan Physician Network Cardiologist Mark A Mitchell, DO, FHRS, FACC. “If you’re a young guy who works with his hands at the steel mill all day, your choice then becomes do you want to have a stroke or potentially have a lift-threatening bleeding event if you have an accident on the job? If the answer is neither, then that’s where the WATCHMAN can come in.”

Franciscan Health Crown Point offers the WATCHMAN procedure, which was first introduced in the fall of 2020. During this one-time, minimally invasive procedure, a Franciscan Health clinical cardiac electrophysiologist and interventional cardiologist use a catheter to guide the WATCHMAN implant to the patient’s left atrial appendage (LAA) in the heart through a small incision in the inner thigh. By permanently closing the LAA, the WATCHMAN device prevents clots from forming in the prime location that can lead to stroke.

Patients can expect to return home the next day and will continue taking blood thinners until the LAA is permanently closed, typically for about 45 days.

James Hoover, 76, is a retired business owner from Michigan City who knows firsthand the benefits of the WATCHMAN procedure. Hoover had a heart ablation in 2009, but was still required to take strong blood thinners to lower his risk of stroke.

Hoover enjoys skiing in the mountains out West and was concerned he would have to stop. He received a flyer in the mail from Franciscan Health about the WATCHMAN procedure and called Eunjin Choi, a cardiac nurse practitioner at Franciscan Physician Network Cardiology Dyer, to set up a consultation.

Hoover met with Choi, who with the interventional cardiac electrophysiology and cardiology team determined he was a good candidate for the WATCHMAN procedure with Dr. Mitchell.

“I can’t say enough good things about Eunjin Choi and Dr. Mitchell,” Hoover said. “I was an engineer by trade and I like having my questions answered quickly, not two weeks, three weeks down the road. They were great.”

Hoover said the WATCHMAN procedure has allowed him to return to his active lifestyle.

“I’ve been off blood thinners for several months and I’m feeling like I never have before,” Hoover said. “I have not had any return of AFib. I’m 76 and I feel like I’m in my 50s. I told them I’m not going to change my lifestyle and now I don’t have to.”

Gerald Lipski, 74, of Schererville, was in good health, but two years ago had a slipped disk in his back that required surgery. His pre-surgical testing revealed he had AFib.

He was referred to Dr. Mitchell and after two cardiac procedures, was placed on blood thinners.

Lipski is retired and spends his weekends photographing horse events, often for 10 or 12 hours a day while carrying heavy equipment. He didn’t want to have to stop doing what he loves because of the risks involved with taking blood thinners for life.

“I saw a poster on the wall for the WATCHMAN and finally asked about it,” Lipski said. “Eunjin explained it really well and I said, ‘Well, let’s get it done.’”

Choi said Hoover and Lipski were both excellent candidates for the WATCHMAN procedure because they already had excellent qualities of life, were very active and took good care of themselves.

“Compliance is very important,” Choi said. “I tell patients that for six months after the procedure, you’re going to be my very good friend,” due to the need for follow-up appointments.

Lipski said he would recommend the WATCHMAN procedure to anyone with Afib.

“I tell people all the time, if you have AFib and don’t like spending $100 a month for (blood thinners), get this done,” Lipski said.

Hoover agrees.

“It’s a no brainer if you want to have a good quality of life,” Hoover said.

 More information about the WATCHMAN procedure is available on the Franciscan Health website. To make an appointment to see if the WATCHMAN procedure is right for you, contact Franciscan Physician Network Cardiology Dyer at (219) 865-0893, Franciscan Physician Network Cardiology Crown Point at (219) 662-0077 or Franciscan Health Heart Center Crown Point at (219) 757-6142.