Blood thinners are commonly prescribed for people with atrial fibrillation, a condition in which the heart beats irregularly and much faster than normal, which can cause clots and lead to a stroke.

However, for people like Bruce Kelly, 66, a West Bend retiree, blood thinners are not a long-term option due to other medical conditions. An alternative is the WATCHMANTM device, a left atrial appendage closure device that reduces the risk of stroke in patients with atrial fibrillation.

In 2013, Bruce first experienced atrial fibrillation. “It would come and go out of the blue,” he said. When tests revealed Bruce’s heart was experiencing atrial fibrillation most of the time, he opted to have a WATCHMAN device implanted in April 2018 at Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Froedtert Hospital.

According to Marcie Berger, MD, electrophysiologist and MCW faculty member, the WATCHMAN device is similar to a tiny parachute and is about the size of a quarter when fully open. Unopened, it fits inside a catheter to be transported to the heart. An interventional cardiologist positions the device at the entrance of the left atrial appendage.

In atrial fibrillation, the atria do not contract rhythmically. Blood swirls and stagnates in the left atrial appendage and blood clots form there.

“The WATCHMAN device acts like a scaffold, sealing off the opening to the appendage,” Dr. Berger said, noting that this does not affect heart function. “We use general anesthesia and the procedure takes about an hour. Patients typically go home the next day.”

Dr. Berger said the WATCHMAN device is a low-risk procedure, with less than 2% of patients encountering complications.

The Froedtert & MCW health network offers a multidisciplinary team approach and performs a high number of WATCHMAN device procedures — good predictors of successful outcomes. “For each procedure, there’s an electrophysiologist, interventional cardiologist, echocardiographer and anesthesiologist in the room, and we’ve done this procedure many times,” Dr. Berger said.

For Bruce, an avid pickleball player, the procedure has eased his mind. “This didn’t cure my atrial fibrillation; I’ll have that the rest of my life,” he said. “But now I have peace of mind because I know the risk of blood clots is significantly reduced. I feel very lucky to live in a community with a medical resource like the Froedtert & MCW health network.”