Schevaun Massey's Journey to Manage AFib Without Blood Thinners
When Schevuan Massey, an 86-year-old grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of four from Hot Springs, Arkansas, saw her cardiologist move away in 2016, she had no idea it would set off a series of events that would end with her receiving two cutting-edge heart procedures months apart and feeling better than ever.
Massey’s first lucky break came when she visited her ophthalmologist, who just happened to be the father of CHI St. Vincent Heart Institute cardiac electrophysiologist Thomas W. Wallace, MD.
“He’s been our ophthalmologist for over 20 years, and in the course of an exam, we started talking and I told him my cardiologist disappeared,” says Massey. “He said ‘My son is a cardiologist,’ and I thought if he’s anything like his father, I want him to be my cardiologist.”
It wasn’t long before Massey was in Dr. Wallace’s office for an examination. She had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, or AFib, about 20 years ago and was managing it with a blood-thinning medication called Warfarin. After examining her, Dr. Wallace explained that she would be a good candidate for a new, cutting-edge procedure that would get her off of blood thinners.
Meet the WATCHMAN
AFib is a common heart condition characterized by irregular heart rhythm, or arrhythmia. It can cause a number of symptoms, including heart palpitations, weakness or fatigue and shortness of breath, as well as increase a person’s risk of stroke by four to five times. Blood thinners are a common treatment for AFib, and while they work well for many patients, for others they can cause unwanted side effects.
“I had experienced a couple of [gastrointestinal] bleeds, and I was not really thrilled with the medication,” says Massey.
For patients like Massey, who have issues with blood thinners, there is another option. This new technology, called the WATCHMAN®, is a permanent implantable device that closes off the heart’s left atrial appendage, which is the source of more than 90 percent of stroke-causing blood clots in patients with AFib.
“Patients are usually referred for the WATCHMAN procedure because they need an alternative to blood thinners,” says Dr. Wallace. “When studied head-to-head against Warfarin, the WATCHMAN lowered the overall risk of stroke the same as if a patient was taking a blood thinner.”
Dr. Wallace stresses that not every patient will be a good candidate for the WATCHMAN procedure, but for those who are, like Massey, it is a great solution.
A New Surprise
As Massey was going through diagnostic tests to prepare for the WATCHMAN procedure, Dr. Wallace discovered a different issue. It turned out she also had severe aortic stenosis, which is a serious blockage of the aortic valve. This had to be addressed before Massey could undergo the WATCHMAN procedure.
Luckily, the cardiologists at CHI St. Vincent Heart Institute are well-equipped to handle issues like this, and soon Massey was in front of cardiologist Forrest Glover, MD. Dr. Glover performed a transcatheter aortic valve replacement, or TAVR, on Massey to fix the issue. TAVR is a minimally invasive alternative to open-heart surgery that repairs a diseased valve by inserting a replacement valve.
“People who develop valve disease often have other medical issues,” says Dr. Glover. “And because of this they are at a higher risk of complications from open-heart surgery. The TAVR procedure is easier on patients and can avoid the sometimes difficult recovery period after open-heart surgery.”
Massey observed the advantages of the TAVR procedure over open-heart surgery firsthand, echoing Dr. Glover’s words.
“My experience with Dr. Glover was outstanding,” says Massey. “I went in one day and came home the next.”
Massey received the TAVR procedure on Dec. 13, 2016, and exactly two months later, on Feb. 13, 2017, she received the WATCHMAN implant. Both procedures went smoothly, and about six weeks later Massey was off blood thinners entirely, except for a daily baby aspirin.
Although Massey is happy to be off blood thinners because of the gastrointestinal bleeding issues she had, the biggest change she has noticed is a new peace of mind.
“I don’t have that apprehension anymore,” she says. “I feel comfortable at the moment. I don’t have that feeling of worry hanging over my head.”
This helps her enjoy time with her husband of 61 years, Bill, and their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Massey explains that “most of what we do centers around family.” And every summer they head up to Puget Sound, Washington, to escape the heat and enjoy the exquisite scenery.
For Dr. Wallace, seeing his patients feel the freedom from blood thinners that comes with the WATCHMAN device is what it’s all about.
“That’s one of the most gratifying aspects of the procedure,” he says. “Six weeks later, telling patients ‘You don’t have to take Warfarin anymore,’ and now they’re not afraid of having a stroke or having to bother with the complications of a blood thinner.”