Phyllis Brooks one of 150 patients in region to be helped by heart device

MORGANTOWN — Just like that, lap band surgery was the least of Phyllis Brooks’ worries.

Not that she was that worried to begin with — she just knew that she needed and wanted to make some changes in her life and health.

So she underwent the bariatric weight-loss procedure, whereby part of the stomach is constricted by an adjustable silicon band to reduce the amount of food that organ can take in.

Because she didn’t want to take in any more days in the hospital than absolutely necessary, she was doing everything everybody was telling her.

She was out of her bed and sitting up in her chair, in fact, when the nurses came running.

Brooks was feeling fine, relatively speaking, so she was thrown by their urgency.

“They said, ‘Oh, honey, you’re in AFib,” she remembered.

Whole lotta shakin’

As in, atrial fibrillation.

The right and left narrow upper chambers of her heart — the atria — were beating out of time, and too fast, besides.

Picture a bowl of Jell-O wildly quivering on its own: That was Brooks’ heart at that moment, and that’s why the hearts of those nurses were racing.

If it kept up, she could suffer heart failure, or a stroke.

In fact, people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke, according to the American Heart Association.

That’s because blood can pool in the atria and form clots, which in turn can become lodged in the brain.

At the very least, Brooks would have lived out her life with chronic fatigue, which, again, wasn’t an option for the Pentress woman with no intentions of slowing down anytime soon — even if she is in her 70s.

One quick fix for AFib is the prescription of blood thinners to keep such clots from forming, but Brooks was eliminated from that avenue because of an earlier bleed in the vessels of one of her eyes.

What to do?

“Well, I just didn’t want to sit there and be a time bomb,” she said. “I didn’t want to wait for a stroke to happen.”

Phyllis Brooks holds a model of the Watchman, a device that was inserted into her heart. (Ron Rittenhouse/The Dominion Post)

Time is on my side

Enter Dr. Wissam Gharib, the keeper of the Watchman at Mon Health Medical Center.

Gharib is a cardiologist who has implanted at least 150 of the devices in patients across West Virginia and the region.

One of them this spring was Brooks.

The Watchman was specifically designed for patients like Brooks who have irregular heartbeats — and the increased risk of stroke — who are unable to take blood-thinning medications for the rest of their lives.

A Boston research company designed the permanent implant, which takes up residence in the heart without a risky surgery.

Gharib and Brooks got together last week at the hospital on J.D. Anderson Drive to talk about it.

“I’m amazed at the technology,” Brooks said. “I’m amazed that something that small is keeping me from having a stroke.”

“Small” is right — the self-expanding device is only about the size of a quarter once it’s deployed.

It looks like an umbrella — “Or a jellyfish,” Gharib said, grinning.

To implant one, he makes a small incision in a patient’s upper leg and inserts a narrow tube, which is used to thread the device up through the body and into the left atrial appendage (LAA) of the heart.

Ninety percent of all the clots that cause strokes are formed in the LAA, cardiologists report.

The Watchman affixes itself to the LAA, where heart tissue eventually grows over it, thus sealing off an avenue for stroke.

All told, the procedure, performed under local anesthesia, takes about an hour, the cardiologist said.

Mon Health is one of the leading hospitals in the country for the procedure.

Brooks was lucky, her cardiologist said: Most patients who find out they have AFib also found out they just had a stroke.

Dr. Wissam Gharib and Phyllis Brooks talk about the device he implanted in heart to help with her Afib. (Ron Rittenhouse/The Dominion Post)

The beat goes on

While there are risks involved — as there are with any such procedure, Gharib said — the reward potential was greater, Brooks said.

“There’s still a lot I want to do,” she said.

She’s retired from the insurance business, but regularly takes cruise ships to Aruba and other tropical ports of call. She’s getting ready to go on another this week.

When she isn’t on the ocean, she’s happily landlocked in north-central West Virginia, where she gives of her time as a caregiver to Mary Copeland, her neighbor — “And faithful Dominion Post reader,” Brooks said, winking.

Brooks got her Watchman the day after her 77th birthday this past May 15.

“How’s that for a birthday present?” she said. “I would never have known if I hadn’t had the lap band. I can’t thank Dr. Gharib enough.”

“I don’t want her thanking me,” the cardiologist said, smiling.

“I want her to forget about me. I don’t want her thinking about the device. I want her enjoying her days and not worrying about having a stroke.”

He did allow that there is one thing he would like in return, however.

“I want to see pictures from the cruise.”

“You got it.”

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Email Jim Bissett: jbissett@dominionpost.com.

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