Life-changer, the Size of a Coin
WORCESTER -- Sitting in a wheelchair just a few hours before she was scheduled to go in for surgery, Georgieanna Lafontaine was thinking about dancing.
“I love country-western dancing so I’d like to go back to that,” the Lunenburg resident said. “We’re all going to go. My family told me, ‘As soon as you get better, we’re taking you down.’”
Dancing, along with nearly every other strenuous physical activity, has not been an option for Lafontaine for quite some
time now. She suffers from atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that can result in irregular heartbeat and can cause stroke-inducing blood clots. Lafontaine had one less than two months ago.
Most patients in her case are able to treat the condition by using blood thinners, which unfortunately have made Lafontaine more sensitive to bleeding and bruising.
However a new, alternative treatment called a Watchman implant has become available in recent years. The implant is a small metal cap about the size of a quarter that can be placed in the opening of a portion of the heart called the left atrial appendage, where blood clots are known to form easily.
UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester was among the first hospitals in the country to start offering the procedure in 2016 and remains one of only a few in the northeastern United States where it is done.
On Wednesday, Lafontaine became the hospital’s 100th patient to undergo the surgery.
“It’s exciting,” she said, explaining that being patient 100 is a little reassuring. “It makes me realize that the people who came before me went well and I’m going to be there with them.”
Dr. Kevin Floyd, a cardiologist and director of the hospital’s left atrial appendage occlusion program, was among the team that performed the procedure on Lafontaine. While blood thinners remain a common practice for treating people with similar conditions, he said the Watchman implant will open the door to a lot of new patients.
“There are a lot of patients who can’t or don’t want to take blood thinners. As we get older, we run the risk of bleeding from anything,” he said. “The trend is now getting toward patient preference. Maybe they’re not at risk of falling or bleeding, but maybe they’re an active person and don’t want to be somewhere and have a bleeding event and be in trouble.”
As Dr. Byron Gentile, an echocardiographer who also worked on Lafontaine’s surgery, explained, the procedure only lasts 30 to 40 minutes. The implant is installed through a catheter run through the patient’s femoral artery into the heart.
“Everyone’s left atrial appendage, which is what we’re closing, is like a thumb print,” said Gentile. “It’s a little bit different in every patient. The shape can be different, the size can be different.”
The size of the implant is chosen accordingly so that it fits each patient. It remains permanently in the patient’s heart once installed.
Lafontaine, who has had to deal with atrial fibrillation for roughly 30 years now, said she is optimistic other people will consider the treatment. Her sister, Debra Farwell, shared that sentiment.
“Today, it being the 100th surgery is amazing,” she said. “But knowing that this is going to be the end and she can start getting back on her feet is really fantastic.”
Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53.