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Cross-country VA Collaboration Saves The Day for Air Force Veteran

Veteran and his dog
Air Force Veteran Bryce De Witt and his dog Atlas.

An Air Force Veteran’s life recently changed forever when doctors at two VA medical centers, almost 2,000 miles apart, worked together and used cutting-edge new technology to restore his good health.

When Bryce De Witt got out of the Air Force in 2022, he was the picture of health.  At 35 years of age and a father of four, he was physically fit, enjoying things like CrossFit, hiking, and his first post-military job as a firefighter/paramedic.  Out of nowhere, he began experiencing low energy and a low heart rate.  

“All of the sudden, I felt terrible,” he said.  “I had no energy and I passed out multiple times so I was unable to work.  I have no history of heart issues in my family but I just knew there was something very wrong.”

For over a year, De Witt sought help at several local hospitals and health systems near his home in Foresthill, California with no success before the VA in Sacramento referred him to the San Francisco VA. There, he met with Dr. Liong Liem, electrophysiologist, and a team of experts via Zoom and was immediately impressed.  

“Within 24 hours of meeting Dr. Liem, I was scheduled for pacemaker surgery,” De Witt said.  “Right away he took my concerns seriously and was in it with me every step of the way to give me back my quality of life.”

After the pacemaker surgery, De Witt felt much better but still wasn’t back to his old self. Liem and the doctors at the San Francisco VA suggested he consider a new technology, only available at one VA in the country, the Michael E. DeBakey VA in Houston. 

In November of 2023, Houston VA became the first VA in the nation to offer Veterans with abnormally slow heart rates the new Aveir DR Leadless Pacemaker technology.  The leadless system consists of two tiny pacemakers, each smaller than a AAA battery, that are inserted via a catheter in a large vein in the thigh. Without any incisions, two devices are secured within the upper and lower chambers of the heart.  The dual pacemakers work together to normalize the heart’s rhythm.

“Adding the second pacemaker makes all the difference,” said Dr. Hamid Afshar, an electrophysiologist, who along with Dr. Irakli Giorgberidze, performed the procedure at the Houston VA.  “After reviewing his patient history, we had a strong inclination that by upgrading the existing ventricular device to a dual chamber device we could help return Mr. De Witt’s health to his normal baseline. This cutting-edge leadless technology is changing the pacing as we know it and can be an immediate game-changer for our Veterans.”

According to Liem, plans were underway for the San Francisco VA to obtain the Aveir technology, but he didn’t want the patient to wait.   

“The day that Mr. De Witt was scheduled for the procedure in Houston was actually the same day that San Francisco VA received approval as the second VA to perform this type of surgery,” Liem said.  “I knew that if I told Mr. De Witt the news, he might be tempted to delay the surgery, but given how life-changing this procedure would be for him, I decided to wait to share that information. I thought, if he were my son, I would want him to be able to resume an active life as soon as possible and this new technology offers him that opportunity.”

Doctors at the Houston VA jumped at the chance to offer De Witt the new technology.

“There may be more than 100 VA medical centers in the country, but we truly are one VA,” Afshar said.  “We are committed to working together to get the best results for our Veterans.”

De Witt flew to Houston and following a short 30-minute procedure, the two pacemaker devices began communicating through electrical pulses to make sure every heartbeat stayed in sync. He was discharged from the hospital the very next day.  “I walked out of the Houston VA and went straight to the airport to come home,” he said. “Right away, I felt so good that I found myself walking around and around the airport.  The VA doctors literally gave me my life back.”

According to Giorgberidze, who is also director of Houston VA’s Electrophysiology Lab and an associate professor at Baylor College of Medicine, the new Aveir technology was a perfect fit for De Witt.  The leadless technology can reduce inflammation, scars and issues like wire insulation breaks and device infection.   

"With this new cutting-edge technology, there are no wires implanted in veins, no metal device under the skin, and no surgical incision,” Giorgberidze said.   “This means the potential for less risk, greater comfort, and fewer post-procedure restrictions for Veterans.  Our goal is to improve our Veterans’ quality of life and leadless pacemakers in both chambers of the heart are incredibly successful.”

Following his procedure in Houston, De Witt has resumed his physical activities and is now working as an ER tech and is in nursing school.  

“My plan is to ultimately work at the VA,” he said.   “The VA has been the best health care I’ve ever received and I want to be a part of that.”