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Durham VA Performs Second Watchman Procedure in North Carolina, First in VISN 6

A surgeon looks at a monitor to check vitals during a heart procedure
Dr. Daniel Friedman, an attending Electro Physiologist-Cardiologist at the DVAHCS, checks a monitor as he positions a catheter during the Durham VA’s first Watchman FLX Procedure.

On August 21, 2023, the Durham VA Health Care System achieved a significant medical milestone as it became the second hospital in North Carolina and the first facility in VA’s Mid-Atlantic Health Care Network to perform the Watchman FLX Left Atrial Appendage Closure Device procedure.

“This marks an historic occasion for us,” said Dr. Rajesh Swaminathan, Chief of Cardiology at the DVAHCS. “Only a select few of VAs across the country perform this procedure and we are the first VA in our network. We look forward to growing this program and continuing to provide the best quality of care to serve our Veterans.”

The Watchman device, endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration in 2015, stands as an advanced solution for patients grappling with atrial fibrillation (Afib), a prevalent form of heart arrhythmia. Individuals afflicted with Afib face heightened stroke risks attributed to diminished blood circulation in the heart’s upper chambers.

While conventional practice entails blood-thinning medications to avert strokes among Afib patients, not all individuals respond favorably to these drugs, placing them at a heightened risk of falling into the one in three Afib patients who experience a stroke.

The concept of the device is simple. Inserted into the heart’s left Atrial Appendage, the device helps coordinate the heart’s upper chambers, which in turn prevents the blood clots that cause stroke from forming. 

“This operation was a complete success with no complications,” says Dr. Daniel Friedman, an attending Electro Physiologist-Cardiologist at the DVAHCS who has experience in performing the Watchman Procedure. “It was also a success because we now have the ability to treat our Veterans here at our facility, where many of them would prefer to receive their care, and not have to send them to community providers.”

For Charles McElrath, a Vietnam-Era Veteran of the U.S. Air Force, and the DVAHCS’ first Watchman recipient, the ability to get “in-house” care in an environment he trusts was all the motivation he needed.

“Blood-thinners just weren’t working for me, but I was skeptical about going outside the VA,” said Mr. McElrath. “When I was told by my doctor that I could get the Watchman Device here, I jumped right on it. I’ll put in this way, if it weren’t for the Durham VA, I wouldn’t be here, I can’t see myself trusting anyone else with my care.”

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