AHN Cardiovascular Institute Expands WATCHMAN Program to Forbes Hospital to Treat Patients with Higher Stroke Risk Due to Irregular Heart Rhythm

Updated on May 8, 2023

Allegheny Health Network electrophysiologists recently performed their first left atrial appendage closure procedure using a WATCHMAN device at Forbes Hospital, which is now one of only a few medical facilities in the region to offer the device as a solution to reduce the risk of strokes associated with atrial fibrillation.

The expansion of the WATCHMAN program — currently offered at AHN’s Allegheny General Hospital and Saint Vincent Hospital through the AHN Cardiovascular Institute — further complements the advanced surgical and cardiovascular services already offered at Forbes, bringing best-in-class care closer to home in Pittsburgh’s eastern suburbs.    

The WATCHMAN is a minimally invasive, FDA-approved implant therapy that permanently closes the heart’s left atrial appendage, reducing the risk of clotting and subsequent stroke, without the risk of bleeding that is associated with the long-term use of blood thinners. 

The implant is one of just a few approved devices that can be used to complete the left atrial appendage closure (LAAO) procedure.  

Atrial fibrillation (AFib) affects the heart’s ability to pump blood normally, which can cause blood to pool in the heart’s left atrial appendage, forming a clot. The left atrial appendage is a small, vestigial pouch that hangs on the left atrium.  

“If a blood clot forms in the left atrial appendage of the heart, it can escape and travel to the brain, causing a stroke,” said Mati Friehling, MD, Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiology. “The goal of the LAAO procedure is to close that area of the heart to prevent an embolism that can lead to a stroke.” 

People who have AFib are five times more likely to experience a stroke than those who have a regular heartbeat. More than 90 percent of stroke-causing clots that originate in the heart are formed in the left atrial appendage.

The parachute-shaped device, about the size of a quarter, is made of mesh and wire and is implanted via catheter through a small leg incision. According to its manufacturer, over 200,000 people have been able to stop using blood thinners following the implant. 

“After the procedure, patients will continue taking blood-thinning medication while new heart tissue grows over the implant. About a month and a half after the procedure, patients can typically stop taking blood thinners,” Dr. Friehling said.

Margie Barnhart, of Westmoreland County, was one of the first patients to receive the implant at Forbes. She’d had multiple, minor strokes prior to the appendage closure procedure.

“It’s worth it. The procedure was like nothing – I had no pain or anything afterward,” she said. “Dr. Friehling was wonderful.”

“Expanding the left atrial appendage closure program to Forbes reflects the network’s commitment to delivering efficient, high quality, state-of-the-art care to patients where they live and work, a hallmark of AHN’s and Highmark Health’s ‘Living Health’ model,” said Mark Rubino, MD, president at AHN Forbes. “We’re proud to bring advanced surgical capabilities to our suburban hospitals, allowing patients to receive life-changing care in their own communities, because we know that surgical outcomes are better when routine care and follow-up appointments are more easily accessible.”

AHN’s Cardiovascular Institute brings together leading structural heart disease experts to provide optimal patient care. The dedicated team of heart surgeons, interventional cardiology and electrophysiology experts collaborates to develop a structural heart disease treatment plan specific to patient needs.

To learn more, visit the Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Cardiovascular Institute.

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