For the approximately 2.5 million Americans who suffer from atrial fibrillation, drugs and electroshock to the heart may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to the innovation of a Santa Monica doctor and the wonders of modern medical technology.
Dr. Shephal Doshi has developed a device that is designed to arrest the ailment where it occurs, in the heart’s left atrial appendage.
Doshi said his heart instrument, called the Watchman, will greatly improve the quality of life for those afflicted with atrial fibrillation.
“The data shows that the Watchman can reduce the level of strokes and death in patients with atrial fibrillation,” Doshi, the director of cardiac electrophysiology and pacing at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said in a recent interview.
During atrial fibrillation, the heart’s two small upper chambers, the atria, quiver instead of beating effectively, according to the American Medical Association. Blood is not pumped completely out of them, so it may pool and clot.
If a portion of a blood clot in the atria leaves the heart and becomes lodged in an artery in the brain, a stroke can occur. According to the association, approximately 15 percent of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.
The Watchman is designed to permanently keep harmful sized blood clots that form in the left atrial appendage from entering the bloodstream, potentially causing a stroke.
The likelihood of developing atrial fibrillation increases with age. Three to five percent of people over 65 have atrial fibrillation.
The device, which acts as a parachute that seals the atrial appendage, was approved by a U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel in 2009, Doshi said.
The Argonaut first interviewed the doctor in 2007 when the Watchman was in clinical trials. Since then, approximately 2,500 patients worldwide have had the device implanted, according to the doctor.
One of the first patients who had the device implanted was the late radio and television personality Art Linkletter, the host of television programs “House Party” and “Kids Say The Darndest Things.”
Another was Playa Vista resident Nancy Beacham, who says she feels “fantastic” nearly three years after Doshi performed the procedure on her.
“For me, it was a very personal thing,” said Beacham, 67, who formerly worked at ABC.
A borderline diabetic who struggled with her weight for most of her adult life, Beacham said she was on the blood thinning medication Coumadin when she qualified for one of the early clinical trials.
“When you’re taking Coumadin, you have to eat the same kind of foods on a regular basis because of the medication,” she said. “Because I love eating broccoli and I was on Coumadin, I had to make sure that I didn’t reduce how much I was eating or it could have affected me in a negative way.”
Because Vitamin K, a fat soluble that is found in broccoli, spinach and cabbage is the antidote to Coumadin, patients taking the drug have to make sure that their diet of leafy vegetables is consistent, said Dr. Thomas Togioka, a cardiologist at Marina Del Rey Hospital.
“If a patient is eating three servings of broccoli for several days and then doesn’t eat it again for a few days, their blood levels will be all over the place, which is not good for someone on blood thinners,” Togioka explained.
Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who also uses Coumadin, recently had the Watchman procedure done and says he feels like a new man.
“I feel great,” the councilman told The Argonaut. Rosendahl, who had the Watchman implanted Jan. 21 and returned to work Jan. 31, said he was walking around his hospital room hours after the procedure.
The Watchman is implanted without surgery, which lessens the recovery time.
Doshi classified his latest patient’s non-surgical procedure as a success. “(Rosendahl) had a great result and the procedure couldn’t have gone better,” the doctor said.
Doshi believes the new procedure can be a more effective and permanent alternative to traditional blood thinning medications such as Coumadin. Although the drug has reduced the risk of stroke, it often has unpleasant side effects such as bloating and fatigue, and can also lead to an increased risk of bleeding, the doctor said.
“I think some of us in the medical profession underestimated the quality of life of some patients who are using blood thinners,” he acknowledged. “By improving a patient’s quality of life, we hope that may translate into increased longevity.”
The program is currently enrolling patients. To qualify for the procedure, a potential patient must fall into one of five camps: they must be a diabetic, be over 75 years old, have congestive heart failure, have suffered a prior stroke or have high blood pressure.
Beacham, who believes an earlier mastectomy led to her atrial fibrillation, says she has not felt better in years.
“This procedure means that I can continue to maintain my healthy abstinence and my 12-step weight loss program, which is one of the most important parts of my life,” she said.
Rosendahl, who is a diabetic, said the day that he no longer has to take Coumadin would be a day of rejoicing. “That will be the moment that I’ll be feeling the most grateful,” he said.
Togioka, who has referred patients for the Watchman operation and has others who have participated in the clinical trials, believes the new medical advancement has enormous potential.
“It is a significant advance in our treatment options for atrial fibrillation,” he said. “It’s the first implanted device that helps treat it.”
Doshi said being at the forefront of this medical innovation gives him a special feeling. “It’s really remarkable to be involved in something like this that can greatly benefit those who have this condition and to be involved in this kind of breakthrough in medical science,” he said.
Togioka agrees. “It shows what can happen when we can apply the development of recent techniques and medical technology to treating new approaches to an old problem,” said the cardiologist.
Rosendahl said he hopes that others with atrial fibrillation might seek help or apply for Doshi’s study group after reading about his experience.
“I would really feel great if other people who have the same condition that I have can feel hopeful about their situation now,” the councilman said. “They would be in excellent, very skilled hands in Shephal.”
Hearing that patients may no longer need to use Coumadin or other drugs to combat atrial fibrillation or other ailments that can cause strokes makes Doshi proud of his cardiac device.
“I feel very privileged to be involved with an instrument and a procedure that can improve a person’s quality of life, as well being able to work with some of the most innovative bioengineering devices in the world,” he concluded.
The Watchman will be submitted for final FDA approval upon the accumulation of additional patient data.