Study to determine benefits of heart surgery to prevent stroke

July 1, 2013 4:52:19 PM PDT
Atrial fibrillation is a common heart arrythmia that puts people at very high risk of stroke. Most people have to take blood thinners for the rest of their lives. But a new method is helping some patients are prevent a stroke, and go off blood thinners at the same time.

Maria Fernandez has atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that's known for causing strokes. When she started having strokes, she thought of her mother.

"My mother had a stroke and she was paralyzed in Spain for nine years," she said.

"In one year you had two strokes back to back. So we were just waiting for the big stroke to happen and thank God we avoided that," said Dr. Basel Ramlawi, a Methodist Hospital heart surgeon.

She avoided that with a new surgery for people with atrial fibrillation. Surgeons clip off a part of the heart called the left atrial appendage. That's where experts say 90 percent of the blood clots that cause strokes form.

"All we're doing is isolating that piece of the heart, the atrial appendage, from the rest of the circulation and preventing any blood clots from going to the rest of the body," Ramlawi said.

After surgery, patients on blood thinners to prevent stroke don't need them anymore.

"A pill everyday for the rest of their life, or a 45-minute procedure that's done once with relatively minimal risk," Ramlawi said.

Methodist heart surgeons have performed more than two-dozen surgeries on patients with atrial fibrillation and results are so promising, they're beginning a larger study.

The question they're asking in the national study is do the risks of heart surgery, even a minimally invasive heart surgery, offset the benefit of reducing the risk of stroke by 90 percent? For Fernandez the answer was yes.

"I was very happy to have the surgery," she said.

"Seems to me as a lay person that it's a good thing," said her husband, Edward Fernandez.

Two years after surgery, Fernandez is doing well. And now this couple, married 48 years, can make their plans with less fear that a stroke will tear them apart.

The atrial appendage clip procedure doesn't cure the irregular heartbeat. But after surgery, medications can help improve the heart rhythm, and patients no longer need the blood thinners to protect them from stroke.

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