By Lisa Nickchen, Editorial Contributor
For more than 20 years, Janet Johnson-Mergenov knew she had an irregular heartbeat, but the occasional flutter in her chest had never slowed her down. She continued to enjoy an active lifestyle and frequent games of tennis and golf. Then 10 years ago on her first visit to a cardiologist, she discovered she had a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, or Afib. Its most common complication is a five times greater risk of stroke.
“Having a stroke, and being incapacitated, was the worst scenario I could imagine,” says the 80-year-old great-grandmother. “I didn’t want to become a burden on my family.”
But Johnson-Mergenov couldn’t tolerate the only medication available to help her avoid the most common risk for Afib patients. Two variations landed her in the hospital with internal bleeding each time.
“With atrial fibrillation, the upper chambers of your heart beat irregularly — quivering like Jell-O,” says Orlando Health Heart & Vascular Institute clinical nurse specialist Janette Sendin, MSN. “Because it’s quivering in that manner, the atria cannot fully squeeze the blood out, and the blood pools. When it pools, it stagnates and can develop a clot.”
If a clot breaks off, enters the bloodstream and lodges in an artery leading to the brain, a stroke results. While anticoagulant medications thin the blood and decrease the clot risk, they increase the risk of bleeding.
The Lake Mary resident thought she was out of treatment options. “I lived my life as usual, but I felt like I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she recalls. “There was a cloud hanging over my head.”
For Johnson-Mergenov, that cloud was lifted when her cardiologist told her about a new minimally invasive procedure being offered by Orlando Health Heart & Vascular Institute. The Watchman™ implant device is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an alternative to reduce the risk of stroke for some types of Afib patients who cannot be treated with blood thinner medication due to bleeding concerns.
She was eager to have the procedure. “I wanted to be sure that I had done everything I could possibly do,” she says.
“As much as you try to put it out of your mind, it’s there. You’re always wondering, ‘Am I going to have a stroke?’ ”
After a stringent screening process, Johnson-Mergenov had the Watchman procedure at Orlando Health in December 2016. This one-time, minimally invasive procedure involves implanting the Watchman device to prevent clots from traveling out from the heart into the bloodstream and possibly causing a stroke.
“Mrs. Johnson-Mergenov is a vibrant lady who enjoys life to the fullest,” says Dr. Roland Filart, an electrophysiologist with Orlando Health Heart & Vascular Institute, and part of the Watchman implant team. “We were happy to help her continue this lifestyle without the fear of recurrent bleeding complications associated with long-term anticoagulation therapy.”
Johnson-Mergenov is thankful she could have this procedure done locally. “It’s an absolute life changer — a great weight lifted off,” she says. “I have a big family, with one great-grandchild and two more on the way, and I want to be around a long time to see them grow up.”
“We were happy to help her continue this lifestyle without the fear of recurrent bleeding complications associated with long-term anticoagulation therapy.” – Dr. Roland Filart
If you or a loved one suffers from nonvalvular atrial fibrillation and can’t tolerate blood thinners, talk to your cardiologist about Watchman. For more information, visit OrlandoHealth.com/AFib.